Libraries Take On A New Look

April 28, 2008
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Open space, flexibility and good lighting are all keys to good library design but there are a number of other design elements that are popular today, as well.

“To a degree, libraries are kind of in competition with the retail book stores,” said Dave Clark, director of architectural design at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber. “They want to offer amenities and a level of comfort and nice reading areas and gathering spots that draw people in, just like Barnes & Noble and Schuler Books.”

Clark was the architect of the new Delta Township District Library, which will be completed early this summer.

The Delta Township Library features a fireplace and a coffee nook, for instance. The library is situated on a “beautiful” wooded site, Clark said, so ample views of the outdoors and lots of natural light were integral to its design. As with other types of building projects, LEED certification is of greater interest today to libraries, Clark said. The Delta Township Library is going for LEED Silver certification.

Another trend in library design is to provide special spaces for different patron types, such as children and young adults.  

“The library community is really focusing on young adults because they’re at an age where it’s critical to get them into the habit of using the library,” Clark observed. “Adults readers and library users are always an important segment, of course, whether they actually check out books or just go there to read periodicals or meet with friends.”

More and more libraries are serving a role in the community as a gathering place, Clark pointed out. A lot of the libraries FTC&H has designed have large, nicely appointed community rooms that can be used whether the library is open or not, he said. The floor plan is set up so the main lobby and restrooms are accessible along with the community room during off hours, without interfering with security of the library, he explained. As another “community touch,” more and more libraries are providing art gallery space to showcase local talent.

“I think what library staff and library architects are trying to reach for is a building that responds to community interests and needs,” said Tom Genson, director of Herrick District Library in Holland.

Genson was actively involved in the Grand Rapids Public Library’s downtown expansion before he went to Holland. Herrick Library was brand new when he came on board. He said libraries are generally becoming lighter, brighter and more colorful in an attempt to make them more inviting.

Grand Haven’s Loutit District Library is another good example of what’s new in the design of library environments. The library broke ground in March on an $11 million expansion that will add 21,000 square feet to the current 27,000-square-foot library at 407 Columbus Ave. The library, which was built in the mid-1960s, is being gutted, renovated and outfitted with new technology and furniture. Meanwhile, it’s operating out of a former grocery store at 1051 S. Beacon Blvd. 

Much to the delight of library staff, come summer 2009, the Loutit District Library will have about 80 percent more space. The library has been crowded for many years, said Director Sandie Knes. Some study and reading areas had to be removed to make room for CD, DVD and audio book display racks. Because of the space issue, the library’s youth, teen and adult programs had to share a single meeting room. Knes, however, believes libraries need to be proactive in providing all sorts of programs, both serious and entertaining, and her staff will be able to do that in the expanded library.

Planning the design of a library is an interactive process, Clark said. The staff and library board are very involved, and typically public participation also is sought out, through either public forums, charrettes or informational meetings.

The Loutit District Library’s design committee included four members of the library’s board of trustees, three staff members, one resident with an interior design background and another with an industrial design background, Knes said. The library also held several public charrettes to give the public a say on the exterior design of the building.

Knes said a lot of people in the community wanted the library to keep the look of the existing building, so the exterior is going to look much the same. The brick on the addition will match the original brick. What will be different is that the library will have some fairly significant clerestory windows and a large, inviting main entry with an atrium, Knes said.

“One of the things we did feel was very important in the design is natural light, and that’s reflected in the exterior, too,” Knes said. “We have this beautiful view of central park in downtown Grand Haven right across the street, but the existing windows overlooking this beautiful park are two feet wide. Those will be enlarged, and I think that will make for a really nice feature.”

The library’s interior was designed in what Knes refers to as the “arts and crafts mission style,” which is characterized by clean lines and a lot of wood. The renovated library will feature program and meeting rooms for youths and teens on the main level and a larger program and meeting room for all patrons on the lower level that can be divided into two rooms. The library will also feature a fireplace.

Fireplaces aren’t really new to libraries, Genson pointed out. The Ryerson Library in Grand Rapids, for instance, has long had a fireplace on the second floor. It’s just that since the advent of gas logs, fireplaces can be operated in a cleaner, more efficient and more economical manner.

Knes believes the new Loutit Library is going to reflect “a nice, warm, comfortable feeling,” Knes said. “We want people to be able to come in, plop themselves down and feel at home. We’re especially looking forward to the extra program room, which will give us the ability to offer more and different programs. We’ll also have enough secure space to bring in traveling exhibits.” 

Additionally, Loutit Library will have a larger public computing area, as well as a separate computer education lab. Previously, the public computing area had to be closed to accommodate a computer education class, she said. Genson said the “incredible influx” of computer technology in libraries has triggered a need for dedicated space for quiet activity, out of earshot from computer keyboards. Libraries also are moving towards self-service with machines that allow patrons to check out their own books.

There won’t be a Starbucks in the Loutit Library, but there will be a refreshment lounge with vending machines on the lower level. Genson remembers the days when library patrons weren’t allowed to bring in, let alone consume, food or beverages on site. 

“Now libraries over 50,000 square feet are beginning to provide refreshment space for patrons,” he said. “One of the things we’ve come to realize is that we send people out with books but don’t tell them they may not have food or beverages while reading them. We’re becoming more lenient towards patrons.”

The Grand Haven library maintains a great number of fragile documents and photographs relating to Grand Haven’s history. The new local history and genealogy room will be climate controlled, humidity controlled and fire safe to better preserve them. Knes said the library will also be equipped to do more digitization of old maps and documents so people can have copies of them without having to touch the original documents. To add to the historical flavor, the room will feature refurbished furniture from the earliest years of the library.

“We have a lot of fragile items that have not been stored under the best of conditions on the lower level of the old building,” Knes acknowledged. “We’ll be better able to preserve all of those original materials — some of which are irreplaceable.” CQX

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