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.