“We can’t remain too attached to a plan, we need to remain flexible”
It’s my second day in Seattle. Today, I visited Northeast Public Library, one of twenty-seven branch libraries distributed in neighbourhoods across the city. Northeast Public Library is in quiet residential area – it is the second most popular branch library (by footfall) and the first most popular (by circulation).
It was built in 1950s, as part of a second wave of growth of the SPL network, and extended in 2004 as part of the ‘Libraries for All’ initiative. Today, it is being ‘re-imagined’ as part of a broader programme to design more effective public spaces. It has recently condensed its circulation and collections desk into one single reception point in order to double the size of its children’s area. The five year olds who currently use the children’s area will eventually grow up so they will want a more sophisticated teenage section to use. The neighbourhood is also rapidly expanding – because people are moving out of the city centre in search for affordable housing. So, there will be increasing pressure on the library to adapt to these known changes, as well as the unknown changes that wait around the corner. This is the first step in a longer process of transformation, explains the branch librarian.
Whilst the branch librarian – and her colleagues - are open to changing their spaces (and their own practices) to reflect changing needs of their patrons… their building is perhaps a little less adaptable. Northeast Public Library has concrete flooring, which means is difficult to reroute electrical wiring to add more plug sockets in the reworked spaces. During the first phase of re-imagining, the library was closed for a week so that builders could drill holes in the concrete flooring... It seems that re-imagining is not simply about changing library services and spaces but also about changing the infrastructure of a building.
Indeed, many of the library buildings I have visited in Seattle have been designed with a particular purpose in mind, which means they are difficult to adapt to contemporary needs. The central library, designed by the well-known architects OMA, completed in 2004, no longer meets the needs of its patrons. Yet it cannot be easily adapted. The open books stacks in the ‘spiral’ on floors six to nine are ‘glued’ into position on the concrete floors which means they cannot be rolled around, pushed away, turned side-ways in response to how patrons want to use the building– which is ironic as this building was designed to challenge the central role of the book.
The library is still about the book. As library workers have explained to me, despite the availability of ebooks, patrons want to have access to books. The architects simply did not anticipate that patrons would engage with books in more interesting ways....