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'.