The Harold Washington Library will never be a neighbourhood library, explains Andrea. ‘Neighbourhood libraries are much more intimate than this building is’. The Harold Washington Library is more of a destination for people – a day out during the weekend, but occasionally during the week as well.
Chinatown Branch Library is not like Harold Washington Library. It is a neighbourhood library. One of the newest branch libraries, completed in 2015, it sits on a plot in between the new and the old part of Chinatown. As Si, the branch manager, explained to me, the library connects the new buildings around Chinatown square with the existing buildings beyond the entrance to Chinatown.
The building is kind of egg shaped, which is radically different from the latest branch library built at Albany Park, which is rectangular. The building is egg shaped because that was the shape of the plot on which it was built. The building incorporates ancient fung shui philosophy - it celebrates old traditions, Si elaborates. This means that the building is open and bright, with a good energy flow up and down the building, created through its atrium with first floor courtyard. The courtyard connects the different parts of the building, Si continues.
It also celebrates new futures: the building is a connection to the future. The photos on the walls are of significant moments in Chinese history. There is a mural on the wall that is a visual depiction of oral accounts passed on by local residents. All these things help connect people in the library – the past and the present and the future, and the people in Chicago to those in China. These artefacts ‘tell us where we come from, where we’re going, and they are a bridge to the future’.
The building was designed to strengthen the community in Chinatown which is 75% Chinese American. During the day, seniors play Chinese board games on small tables on the second floor, attracting onlookers who gather around to support them. Young adults, who are distributed across the building, browse the extensive collection of books on Chinese culture, history and language. As Si explains, ‘We used to have the largest collection for Chinese heritage … and immigrant experience to the USA’. The busiest time in the library is after 3pm, when young children flood into the space to do their homework. The Chicago Library Foundation funds a ‘teacher in the library’ scheme which means that a teacher is on hand between 3pm and 6pm to assist school children with their homework.
Chinatown is a tourist destination so many foreigners also visit the library – to use the restroom, Si explains. The library is ultimately a flexible facility for whomever wants to use it.
I asked Si - could they have added a third floor to the new building so there is more space? No, she explains, it is not possible to have a third floor because of budget constraints. And, anyway, the building would have been out of place, as it would be taller than the surrounding buildings. It would not have been part of the community.