What should a public library look like?
I spent the last day in Seattle at one of Seattle’s Carnegie libraries. This particular library, West Seattle Public Library, was built in 1910. The spaces in this library are being ‘reimagined’ to reflect new occupancy patterns – but it is difficult to reimagine the spaces as their size and shape is already determined by fixed wooden partitions that break up the floor area. The is a building on the National Register of Historic Places. The reimagining will have to be done with these partitions in place.
The public library has evolved since Andrew Carnegie donated $220,000 to Seattle to rebuild it. The Carnegie library was based on a particular idea of a library. A library was a place where there where books along the walls; it was a place where there were formal tables and chairs in the centre of the room on which there were traditional lamps. The manager of another branch, Rainier Beach Public Library, explained to me that ‘print material has exploded in our professional lives’. There is more print material available; and patrons want access to it all. So, the library has slowly become a place for storing this print material. The OMA + LMN Seattle Central Library was designed to store print material - which is why four floors are dedicated to holding print material on open shelves that are fixed to the concrete floors.
The Internet has taken pressure off somewhat – but people continue to want access to books as well as online material. At the moment library workers are having to make way for books and people. People come into the space looking for somewhere to sit, read, work, and a plug to use. The manager of Rainier Beach Public Library continued:
‘My favourite part of our reimaging my library is that it puts people in the centre of the space. You see people and activities when you walk in; it’s not that we don’t treasure our collection. Our collection is one of our core services. But we need to make our collections more subtle. It doesn’t need to be in the centre. So the redesign has opened everything up so much – everyone and everywhere is much more visible’.
Libraries have weeded their collections as much as possible to make more space for people. Librarians carefully analyse circulation data to decide what to keep and what to discard. The manager stated, ‘You have to critically look at your collection based on your own usage. So we’ve analysed the data a lot – we have no problem reducing some collections’. But, there is only so much weeding that can be done – there are still plenty of books to store.
Should public libraries store their collection onsite on open stacks? Is a good use of real estate? Seattle Public Library currently stores all its books in the central and branch libraries – which almost act as storehouses. It would be easy to set up a system for ordering books from an offsite store similar to the system that is in place at the moment – where patrons have access to books throughout the library system which they have delivered to their nearest library. What should a library look like? Should it contain books or people? Do librarians need to decide?
The librarians I spoke to were reluctant to remove all the open stacks. In light of the increasing need for patron seating, then, library workers might have to begin to think about reducing their back of house areas. Is there scope for reducing the size of staff offices to create space for people in the front of house areas? This would encourage librarians to step out from behind their desks to participate with patrons… another growing trend.