Libraries that Wow and Welcome

With added amenities and electronic offerings, libraries are re-establishing themselves as community centers — and even attracting tourists.

August 01, 2004 |

Fewer libraries were constructed last year than in any year since 1985. But while the total number, 226 — 195 public and 31 academic — was down, a number of prominent and astoundingly eye-catching libraries appeared on the scene.

The Seattle Public Library's Central Library, Salt Lake City Public Library, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose, Calif., emphasize design in ways that wow, welcome, and attract patrons, while at the same time providing comfortable, entertaining, and easy-to-use spaces in which to access books and a proliferation of electronic information.

These libraries are trendsetters, but they are not alone in reflecting many of the new developments taking place in libraries large and small.

Given the sizable budget of each of these libraries, the funding crunch affecting most systems throughout the country does not directly apply in these instances. But while construction of the $165.5 million Seattle Public Library was under way, funding shortfalls throughout the system in 2002 forced a week-long shutdown of the city's existing libraries, according to Library Journal. As is often the case when budgets are tight on a project, Building Teams make funding constraints work in favor of the project by raising their level of ingenuity and innovation.

Partnering to leverage services

As has been the case with K-12 schools recently, partnered facilities, which leverage costs and the building space for multiple uses, are now becoming typical elements of library construction. At the Courtland (Calif.) Community Library, the town's library is commingled with a school. The Oconto (Neb.) Public Library includes a community hall and senior center that were destroyed by a tornado in 2000. Bell Memorial Public Library, Mentone, Ind., incorporates daycare and a senior center. The Evergreen District Branch of the Wichita (Kan.) Public Library houses a Head Start facility. The Seattle Public Library's Capital Hill Branch features a neighborhood service center.

Parks and recreation areas also are being co-joined with libraries. The Stafford Library in Woodbury, N.M., coexists with an indoor park, while South Valleys Library in Reno, Nev., is located in a county park. In Ohio, the Northwest Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library includes a community center, a walking track, and athletic fields.

Budgets, though large for high-profile projects like Seattle's Central Library and the $92 million Salt Lake City library, still had to be adhered to, say Building Team members. While the funding for San Jose's $177.5 million King Library was ample for the huge 475,000-sf facility, the Building Team was "given a very clear directive that we weren't going to be given any more money for the project," says Dolores Montenegro, senior program manager for the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, which led the project.


One of the many “wow” experiences found in Seattle’s Central Library affords a bird’seye view of the “Living Room” grand atrium. The diamond-patterned steel skeleton provides lateral bracing. Wider steel flanges are used in areas where additional support is needed.

The King Library, whose design team included San Diego's Carrier Johnson in a collaborative effort with library expert and modernist elder Gunnar Birkerts of Gunnar Birkerts Architects Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and local firm Anderson Brulé Architects, is the result of a unique "town and gown" partnership agreement between the city and San Jose State University, whose 25,000-student campus is located downtown. The idea for the partnership was percolated over morning coffee between the mayor and the president of the university. "Neither the city nor the university had the resources to build a new library on their own," says Montenegro, so the partnership was an ideal match.

The eight-story project comprises the city's new public library and SJSU's new main campus academic and research library. James Klingensmith, project manager for Providence, R.I.-based construction manager Gilbane, credits the project's success to the establishment of operational, contractual, and accounting protocols between the city and SJSU, which "created a strong overall program and operating methodology" and a streamlined decision-making process. Final decisions ultimately rested with the redevelopment agency and Montenegro, who says the Building Team "had a set plan to put in motion, which made my job as project manager extremely easy."

The project's extensive planning process gave Building Team members a "deeper understanding of the project," says Klingensmith. In so doing, "the team members were able to make better decisions in the field. It wasn't just a cold set of documents."

According to Art Heinrich, SJSU's campus architect, the public and academic sections of the library share the reference collection and circulation desk, and both the public and students have access to the entire library. But the "natural flow of the building" dictated that the more active public sections of the library be located on the first four floors, with the academic and research sections located on the top four floors.

The library is located on land owned by the university on which a library previously stood. The city, which leases its space, contributed $101 million toward the project, while SJSU contributed $76 million.

Event places and public forums

The idea of the library as a venue in which to foster a sense of community and as a "cultural meeting place" rather than a place to simply go pick up a book or do research is also important, says Isaac Franco, AIA, project manager with Moshe Safdie and Associates, Somerville, Mass., which designed the 237,000-sf Salt Lake City Public Library, in association with local firm Valentiner Crane Brunjes Onyon. "Salt Lake City needed a cultural place where people could go and spend time," Franco says.

Seattle's Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas's Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture with local firm LMN Architects, has its awe-inspiring diamond-shaped glass-and-steel-enveloped "Living Room" atrium, which rises eight levels overhead. Salt Lake City has its "Urban Room," a light-drenched indoor urban gallery, featuring a stone-paved walkway that runs 200 feet between the main section of the library and the far end of the warped, sloping steel and precast concrete "Crescent Wall," which ties together the "Main Street" entrance to the outdoor piazza.

The main public entrance lobby of San Jose's King Library was intentionally designed as a large-scale unprogrammed space, which is well suited to hold a variety of revenue-generating functions for the city and SJSU. On the fifth floor, a roof deck is used for functions. "It's the idea of the library as more of a multipurpose space — a space for events," says Kevin Krumdieck, senior associate with Carrier Johnson.

"These are places to go and sit and meet people," says Franco, noting that the Salt Lake City library's forum spaces are available to the public even when the library is closed. "This is a trend in the role of the library as a public forum for the exchange of ideas and for public culture," he says. "Libraries are more open than museums or concert halls, where you have to have a ticket or a reason to be there."

Shop 'til you drop, eat 'til you pop

Retail shops and cafés are giving patrons all the more reason to spend time at their libraries.

Such amenities are a major component of the Salt Lake City library's lower level. Outside on the plaza, Franco says space is provided for the addition of two movie theaters. A bookstore and a café anchor the ends of the King Library's main street ground floor. On the main (third) level of the Seattle Central Library, a compact 300-sf gift shop features shelving units on tracks, which retract and fit tightly together when the store is closed. Adjacent to the gift store is a small coffee shop — this is Seattle, let's not forget.

Public libraries are breaking the long-standing tradition of banning food and drink from being taken into the stacks, with the Seattle Central Library even promoting the policy — as long as the drink is covered with a top.

Publicly accessible rooftop gardens and decks play a major role in these new libraries. The Salt Lake roof garden is located on top of a triangular-shaped building, which houses the main book stacks, and is accessed via the Crescent Wall by a series of slopes, stairs, and a bridge. The roof supports a mixture of natural grasses planted in several inches of growing medium and trees planted in 3- or 4-foot-wide trenches. The trees are planted over columns to support the additional weight on the roof. The fifth-floor roof deck at the King Library is accompanied by the library's special collections, which are kept on display during events.

However, a vegetated roof planned for the Seattle Central Library was value engineered out of the project in its latter stages, says Sam Miller, principal and project manager for LMN Architects.

Shedding light on 'wow' spaces

Introduction of natural light into libraries through the use of skylights and expansive glass curtain wall is a major theme of the Seattle, Salt Lake, and San Jose libraries. According San Jose State's Heinrich, what looks to be a new trend actually harkens to architect Louis Kahn, whose catch phrase was "Bring the book to the light." "The idea was to store the books in the shade so that they aren't damaged," says Heinrich.

At the King Library, the eighth-floor reading room is arranged in linear fashion along a 30-foot floor-to-ceiling curtain wall, which affords a panoramic view of the city. The team chose spectrally selective low-e glazing that reduces glare and heat gain, yet remains highly transparent. The use of ceramic frits on the glazing provides unobtrusive shading.

Using daylight as a wayfinding measure, the King Library's design team carved out the center spine of the H-shaped building, forming a vertical "Light Canyon" atrium that allows patrons to see up through all eight floors. The daylight also draws the eye to the main circulation desk and vertical circulation. The redevelopment agency's Montenegro calls this treatment "visually stunning."

Moshe Safdie and VCBO used glass extensively to marry the Salt Lake City library's existing outdoor plaza with its new interior space. Its "Urban Room" is flooded with light to bring the outdoors in, making the piazza more active and the library more inviting to patrons, says Safdie's Franco.

The library's glass-encased "Canyon," which occupies the space between book stacks and library offices, allows light in from the top through to the lowest level of the library. A south-facing double-glazed, insulated curtain wall, called the "Lens," provides readers with spectacular views of the Wasatch Mountains. Nicknamed by the team as the "heat modulator," the Lens, whose outer glass layer is low-e, contains openings at the top and bottom, which allow for natural ventilation in the summer. In the winter, the sun heats the air between the glass layers, warming the building.


Salt Lake City Library’s south-facing double-glazed, insulated curtainwall, called the “Lens,” provides readers with spectacular views of the piazza and Wasatch Mountains.

Sheathed in a diamond-patterned net of glass and steel, Seattle's Central Library, whose reflective patterns change the appearance of the exterior as the sun moves across the sky, takes daylighting to the nth degree. To reduce glare and heat gain in areas receiving direct sunlight, OMA and LMN conceived a metal mesh glass cut in 4×7-foot diamond-shaped units, which use aluminum sheet metal that is cut, stretched, and placed between the layers of glass. This is said to be the first use of the metal mesh material in the U.S. A clear, low-e glazing is used on the remainder of the exterior.

The steel skeleton supporting the glazing resists lateral forces, says Jon Magnusson, P.E., chairman and CEO of local structural engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates.

Wired, but ready for wireless

One of the great challenges in library design is accommodating today's technology needs while providing the flexibility for future advances. When the Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Jose libraries were being designed in the late '90s "wireless environments were too great a gamble to rely on," says Carrier Johnson's Krumdieck. Books are not going away anytime soon, but access to electronic information is becoming more important to patrons. Public and academic libraries are increasingly taking on the role of teaching patrons how to use computer systems for online catalogs and to conduct research.

Since the Salt Lake City Library opened in February 2003, the library has introduced a wireless network. To accommodate changing technology, the library utilizes a raised-floor system. Although "flexibility" is a favorite word of librarians, Krumdieck says his firm favors designing for "adaptability." "If a library is too flexible, it won't be affordable and it won't get built," he says.

Instead of going with a raised-floor system, the King Library design team devised a system of four mechanical shafts located at the edges of the building, through which electrical and data infrastructure is distributed. Each floor contains three data distribution closets to reduce the distance that the hard wires have to be run. In all, 2,700 reader stations are hardwired in the library. A few wireless networks have been installed since the building opened last August, with more to come, says Krumdieck. "The wireless networks are easy to install, but you still need to have that vertical backbone in place," he says.

Seattle's Central Library is a smorgasbord of technology. Reference librarians use wireless technology to communicate with each other and to answer phone calls, freeing up phone lines. Wi-Fi hotspots located in the Level 5 "Mixing Chamber" reference floor, the Living Room, and other areas of the library enable patrons wireless access.

The Mixing Chamber contains 132 online catalog computers with fiber to all desktops — 400 public computers in all. "The public has access to a lot of online information resources, such as LexisNexus, that they wouldn't ordinarily have," says LMN's Miller. Patrons searching for a book using the online catalog receive a photo of the book and a diagram of the book's location.

Books and other tangible items get in on the high-tech action through an automated handling system, which sorts and places books on carts for shelving. A radio frequency identification system, which uses an antenna to read a microchip placed in an item, automatically checks in the item.

Just as the first Carnegie libraries made library patronage open and free at the dawn of the 20th century, today's libraries are opening new doors to learning, culture, and ideas through technology and engaging, inviting design.

The editors wish to thank our sister publication Library Journal for its assistance with this article.

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