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.
Harold Washington Library is what you might call a traditional library based on the importance (and continued relevance) of the book. The building contains around 750,000 square feet of space dedicated to open stacks and reading spaces. It was designed to reflect the layout of a department store - with a central escalator that takes the visitor through the whole building, passing through each ‘department’ (or subject area) on their way down. Each floor is laid out in exactly the same way. But, this creates an inflexible arrangement, where people are separated from each other, without any visual or audible connection.
I spent the afternoon in a meeting with the assistant commissioner for branch libraries and services, Andrea Telli, at Gensler’s offices. They have been commissioned to redesign the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library at Harold Washington Library – so that it becomes a space that ‘excites, belongs, wonders, gathers, explores, evolves’.
Gensler’s concept will have an impact on the whole building. The entrance to the children’s library will now be open … This has security implications, Andrea explains. ‘We’ll have to tighten our security so that the children remain safe’. But, it is an important measure to connect areas of the library that are currently disconnected. Opening up the entrance will mean that the sound from the children’s library to travel to the lobby below… enlivening the entrance space so that visitors ‘know they are in a library’. As one of the participants in the meeting remarked, ‘noise is the sound of learning’.
Gensler’s concept brings together three age groups (0-5, 6-8, 9-12) within a single space. The children’s library will be divided into three discrete areas, with a ‘public area’ that is where parents can watch children play from afar. There will be an enclosed area for wet play, story-telling, and a workshop. Behind this enclosed area, there will be private staff offices, consisting of preparation tables, small offices, and conference room.
The effort of library workers in Harold Washington Library to create noise in the space contrasts with that of other library workers in other libraries I have visited who attempt to reduce the noise in an open plan environment. The library workers who I visited in Espoo in Finland, for example, commented on their failed attempts to deal with the noise. The noise is a problem for those who simply want to have a quiet spot.
But, there is plenty of space for everyone at the Harold Washington Library, which has ten floors, seven of them for patrons to read, study and work.
I am back on my tour of public libraries …. First stop, North Carolina State University to visit the innovative James B. Hunt Jnr. Library. This library has become known for its ‘bookBot’, an electronic book storage and retrieval system. The ‘bookBot’ is nine times more efficient than open stacks.
Indeed, open books shelves are a ‘rare phenomenon’ in this library, explained the Associate Director. ‘There are open stacks in three locations outside of the bookBot. The shelving was intended to be used as overflow for items requested from the bookBot, but it was never needed for that purpose’. The three main locations of open stacks are on the second floor and fourth floor. At the time of my visit, they were almost full (as my photos show), and they remain so today. There are also curved bookshelves not pictured in my photos in the second floor lounge area.
Snohetta were chosen to design the new library, which was completed just over three years ago. Out of the six finalists, Snohetta showed that were open to working with the university. They were not only receptive to comment on their designs, they readily absorbed one of the university’s design students in their team, and involved them in their final presentation. This was what distinguished Snohetta from the other architects, the Associate Director explains.
But, Snohetta were not responsible for choosing our furniture, he continued. The selection of furniture was by a small committee that included the in-house interior designer, the Director of Libraries, the Associate Director, and a few other senior Libraries staff. The university hired another interior designer who also assisted with the purchasing of furniture, scheduling deliveries, etc. The committee made sure there was plenty of variety. This means that the students have a remarkable amount of choice. Indeed, they don’t always sit in the chairs to work, some of them prefer to sit on floors, steps and even on-top of the walls. The space is flexible enough for the students to feel they can make it their own.
It was clear that many of the spaces are dedicated cutting edge technology, such as the makerspace, visualisation lab, and creativity studio on the fourth floor. The creativity studio is designed to be a fluid space with retractable white walls, and cameras, projectors, and lights that can be moved around depending on how they are required. It is used by the navy as a simulation space…. Indeed, libraries are responsible for incorporating digital technology into the learning experience – it is important to dedicate space to teaching via these new technologies. It not only affects how we use buildings, but also what we do in them.
After the tour, Patrick sent me a link to an article on the Johnson Building at the Boston Public Library and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington DC, which were built in 1972, and are now being modified to accommodate fundamental shifts in expectations for libraries. How will these historical buildings being altered to accommodate contemporary ways of learning?
Only three open book stacks remain in James B. Hunt Jnr. library; 1.6 million volumes are stored in the automated retrieval system known as the 'BookBot'.
Are we ready for public libraries that do not hold as many physical books? Foster + Partners’ controversial proposal to renovate the Stephen A Schwarzman Building in New York was rejected by influential figures on the basis that books would be moved from the library’s stacks to a new location in New Jersey – which would cause delays in retrieval. Mecanoo will now lead the renovation of Stephen A. Schwarzman Building which will involve increasing the amount of public space by almost 42%. The revised scheme would allow books to stay in an on-site storage area.
Smaller libraries do not have a choice. Many libraries that I have visited over the last two weeks are reducing the number of books they hold on-site. ‘We have had our funding cut’, one service manager explained. ‘We cannot hold books for the few adults who come here to browse’, he continued. The library needs to create space for other services. ‘We can give our customers a better offer by setting up an agreement with another library so they can borrow a wider range of books. These books will be delivered to our library on a daily basis’.
Many of the customers I spoke to will miss the books that are on the shelves. Some only visit the library to read books. ‘When I have half a day off work … I like coming to browse the books’, one gentleman explained. I asked him if he would be happy to access these books online? ‘No, I like being surprised’, he said. ‘I see that there are fewer books here now’.
Are libraries becoming bookless spaces? There have been cuts in public funding in many countries I have visited - increasing pressure on libraries to use their space effectively. Some libraries might have to remove books from their shelves to make space for other services that are more lucrative. Larger libraries will continue to hold the books – with smaller libraries providing a range of community services instead. What learning for UK libraries?
The libraries that I have visited in Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands all benefit from their location. Whether they are in a school, shopping centre, or main square – they benefit from being close to other services. A library also attracts new visitors to the location – so schools, shopping centres, and main squares benefit from the library being there. They shift the flow of traffic from one part of the city to another.
Take Aarhus DOK, for example, which is also a transport hub for visitors. The library is a place for visitors to park their car, and at the same time, it brings visitors to the water front where they do not usually venture. It marks the development of the area into a bustling part of Aarhus.
A second example is de nieuwe library in Almere Stad. Almere is only 38 years old, and is made up of three ‘nuclei’. Almere Haven was developed in 1974, Almere Stad was built in 1979, and Almere Buiten was planned in the 1980s. It is a new town with a relatively young population.
de nieuwe Almere Stad is the largest of three libraries – each catering for a different part of the town. Almere Stad was completed in 2010 and sits on the main square – drawing visitors from all over the town to the square where there are shops, cafes and restaurants. It shifts the flow of people from the old town to the new town.
The flooring in the entrance of Almere Stad is similar to the material in the main square – there is a seamless connection between the two spaces. What happens in the main square influences what happens in the library. Wednesday is market day, which brings more visitors to the library.
A third example is Delft DOK. It is similarly influences and is influenced by its surroundings. It is located in a small square with a cinema and theatre which used to only attract visitors at night. The library has bee relocated there to attract daytime visitors. It is a cunning scheme by the town planners to make sure that the area feels ‘safe’ night and day.
What learning for UK libraries? Town planners work hard to get the town to operate as a unified whole – a building such as library can shift the flow of people from one part of a town to another, and in turn, a library can benefit from being located in new areas.
Three kinds of library (book, music, and art) were joined together to create Delft DOK. As former library director, Marikje Timmerhuis, explains, it was ‘a challenge to keep the character of each organization, but also create one organization with one service’.
There is still a large space where customers can visit, touch, and play with its art collection. As Marikje explains, ‘we create an environment with art objects that challenges kids to explore things themselves’. The Delft DOK philosophy for using art for learning is very simple - children can teach themselves. Teachers are encouraged to ‘take a backseat’ which is sometimes hard for them.
There are three artists who work alongside the children. They create new art objects with which the children can play.
There is a glass box with material inside to touch with rubber gloves – called ‘The Incubator’. There are sofas made from plastic – these are totally transparent. The sofas reflect the ‘transparency’ of Delft DOK – ‘we have nothing to hide’, Marijke explains.
The library uses its art collection in its other services such as the Vindplaats - a small school library where art objects are lent out to teachers and pupils. The Vindplaats have art hanging on their walls, sitting on shelves, and lying in piles. Each piece of art comes with information about the artist. Teachers are encouraged to discuss the artwork with their students.
Albeit reduced in size, from 5,000 to 3,500 pieces, the art collection continues to play an important role in the library. Over the next few years, Delft DOK will be involved in activities that help children learn languages – such as Dutch. (There are still many children who are not taught Dutch at an early age in Holland). ‘We invest in children’, Marijke explains. Language skills are a very important to us. How will art continue to play a role?
I spent the day in Delft DOK. This is a fantastic space – popular with children. It is a creative environment where customers are surrounded by books, art objects, musical instruments, and technology. The interior is painted with citrus colours that give the place a zingy atmosphere – and direct customers towards an interesting part of the library. Red is for Love and also for Romantic Literature.
Turning left on entering the library, you come to a wide staircase that connects the ground and first floor, leading customers up into the café. The café is for working, reading, sitting, watching, and eating and drinking. It is a collaborative workspace that provides customers with a view of other customers – a space to watch people.
The library is set up perfectly for parents with young children. The children’s area is a few steps from the café. It is also a few steps from the lift that takes parents with toddlers, prams and bags from the ground to the first floor. On exiting the lift, parents can park their prams in an allocated space, where there are hooks to hang their toddler’s coat. The nearest toilet is adjacent to where they hang their todder’s coat.
Parents can sit on a table that looks like the kitchen dining table that one has at home. They can sit, talk, and watch their children play with the soft toys in the play pen in front of them. Some parents even work on their laptops – or answer e-mails on their iPhone – whilst watching their one year old totter around.
The sound from the children’s section travels to the café … but not much further. The adult section remains quiet as it is tucked on the other side of a wall. The teenage section is on the opposite side of the space. It is protected by a wall of sound and popular music drowns out the noise from other sections. From the floor above, staff have a good view of the café and adjoining children and teenage sections.
It is not surprising that the library is expanding the children’s section to other areas. In comparison with other areas, the children’s section is a hive of activity, and it is bursting at the seams.
At a time when it is difficult to secure government funding – libraries have to dedicate themselves to the customers that appear to need them most. If libraries are consistently attractive to parents with children then this group of customers will also determine how the library is designed in the future…
A number of libraries I have visited on my trip around Europe share space with other services.
In Finland, Library Apple in Espoo is soon to be combined with a health clinic, maternity centre, and social security services. The idea has already been tested in Denmark but it is new in Finland. In the Netherlands, de nieuwe bibliotheek in Almere Haven will relocate to a new building which it will share with the social services, council, restaurant and gallery.
Other libraries share a school building. In Finland, the Active Learning Centre is in a school complex where children have access to the library during their lunch breaks and before and after school. In the Netherlands, de nieuwe bibliotheek in Almere Poort has a room on the ground floor of a school – a space that it shares with welfare services.
It is cheaper for a public library to rent a shared space. It is also an effective way of integrating library services into learning, health and social service programmes, and gaining new customers. But, there are teething problems.
In Library Apple, staff and customers are worried about how well they will mix with others in a new services centre. They are concerned about the privacy of their customers. Their customers are concerned about being seen by others using the service. A shared service means your needs are instantly visible to others. At the same time, the Active Learning Centre and de nieuwe bibliotheek sharing a school building have trouble integrating with the school.
Staff providing different services need to work hard to integrate them. The spatial layout of a building cannot force staff and customers to work together. There needs to be a common agenda.
Today, I visited a library in Sello in Espoo, which is on the outskirts of Helsinki.
It faces a shopping centre which means that it benefits from passing foot traffic. Many visitors with whom I spoke had dropped by because ‘they were in the area’.
The library is organized around an atrium which is the entrance to the library. Its two floors are visible to the visitor as they enter. Oli Sivula, Director of the libraries in Espoo, explained that she worried about the space being too noisy. But, the visitors whom I spoke to did not appear at all concerned, and said that they enjoyed reading and studying in a lively place.
However, they wanted more privacy, a ‘space within a space’ that enabled them to tuck themselves into a corner of the library. They liked being in a sociable environment, but they also sought seclusion. Similarly, the school children I spoke to liked to study in corners. They liked sitting being in the midst of the activity, but they did not necessarily like being in the middle of the action. They wanted the option to duck out of view.
What learning for UK libraries? It is important to design spaces that are active – or ‘buzzing’ – and spaces that enable people to retreat. This means providing visitors with pockets of seclusion.
Over the last few days I have discussed the role of public libraries in society with a handful of ‘library workers’ from all over the world. Many agree that their library needs to provide new services in order to attract new visitors. But, some consider turning the library into a ‘digital hub’ that collects and stores electronic information through advanced technology, whilst others consider turning the library into a community meeting place. They are at different stages of the journey.
Today, I visited Entresse library which is the second largest library in Espoo, on the outskirts of Helsinki. Entresse library contains many of the same activities and settings as Sello library which I visited yesterday. As Eva Wilenius, who showed me around the library today, noted ‘we think children, and families, and immigrants are really important here so we dedicate over half the library space to them’. But, providing so much space for children and families in one library, on a single floorplate, generates a lot of noise for others.
Most users with whom I spoke, who use the library to study, said that they do not mind the noise. So, why is Eva concerned? She believes that the library should be an inclusive space in which everybody can find refuge. But, in providing a sanctuary for everybody, librarians spread themselves (and their resources) too thinly. If only a handful of individuals study at Entresse library, at certain times of the year, librarians should not commit to providing a quiet space for all of them. In Finland, everybody has access to university libraries, which provide quiet spaces. Individuals wishing to study can use these libraries when they choose to. What would university libraries need to do to accommodate the overflow from public libraries? They would need to provide spaces – such as family areas - so that adults and elderly visitors can use the study rooms.
What learning for UK libraries? Rather than attempting to satisfy every need within a single space, it is more useful to consider the library as part of a network of spaces, each satisfying a few requirements.