Thriving On Change

1603flibrary07p In response to concerns about a single but relatively large tree that had to be removed for the construction of the Bellevue branch of the Nashville Public Library system, Hastings Architecture Associates LLC, Nashville, TN, commissioned an artist to create abstract birds from the felled tree. The open and bright interior of the library is organized on a central spine between two primary masses that represent an open book and serve to organize library functions and separate spaces for collaborative activities and those intended for more quiet individual reading spots. Photo: Albert Vecerka/Esto

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

Public libraries have been challenged by the Internet, the smartphone, and e-books in the past decade, but most are successfully adapting to remain relevant in a digital age.

“I think they’re thriving, actually,” said Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, New York.

“Maybe as little as 10 years ago the library was not that different than the library that you and I grew up with—book heavy and with a traditional model of services—but we’ve been through an explosive growth of technology. Libraries are about information and access, and technology has changed how that happens,” said Derek Jones, LEED AP, Practice Leader, Principal, Perkins + Will, Durham, NC.

“From my position they’ve gone from ‘have-to’ institutions, meaning if you wanted a certain kind of information, you had to go to the library to get it. Now you can sit in a coffee shop, at home, or in transit and access the same information. Consequently, libraries have had to rethink of themselves as a ‘want-to’ destination—somewhere that has an appeal and a draw that will bring someone in physically to their space,” he added.

Following the same line of thinking, “libraries recognized that children’s museums were offering something that was quite successful, and that has to do with themed environments that are attractive and compelling for kids, giving them larger spaces better geared toward their learning styles and interests,” Skolnick added.

“In the past, the main resource for library users was the card catalog, but today libraries are working to teach people to receive information in an efficient way, and the tools for doing that are at heart of the pedagogy of public libraries now. Instead of the library as the end point, it is more of the gateway to the rest of the world,” said Gordon Carrier, FAIA, NCARB, founding design principal at Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, San Diego.


The “reading porch” at the Bellevue branch of the Nashville, TN, public library faces the street and is protected by a steel screen that is derived from the dust jackets found on hardcover books. The screen protects the full-height glass from direct solar intrusion into the café, lounge, and primary stacks area. A naturally landscaped bioswale softens the view from the porch. Photo: Albert Vecerka/Esto

Partnerships are one way libraries have sought to attract community members. “They’ve really looked at [partnerships] in order to improve services they can’t just do on their own; they have gone out into the community and looked for like-minded, or complementary, organizations that could offer things like health services or counseling. Or they’ve teamed with schools or art centers so their resources and activities can come together and they can start fulfilling some of those community aspects,” Jones said.

The Port Washington, NY, library hosts an annual international cultural festival. “Even though it’s a Long Island suburb and one might imagine it’s homogeneous socio-economically, it’s actually not at all; it has a tremendous diversity of ethnicities,” Skolnick said. The groups set up tables or booths and offer ethnic food and crafts. There are ethnic performances in the multipurpose room.

It’s a way to celebrate the community, to get diverse elements to mix, and for the library to be seen as a center of culture for the neighborhood it serves, according to Skolnick. “It gives ethnic communities a proprietary sense that the library is not just a service but a place they can make their own,” he said.

“In a way, the single biggest change to libraries has been how they have evolved to become community centers,” agreed Carrier. “There’s also an emphasis on the value of collective societal spaces, and it’s not about age or ethnicities or something else. It’s about presenting an architectural solution where everybody has equal access. After all it’s a public library. Whatever your persuasion, it’s a safe haven and resource,” he added.

He observed, too, that almost all libraries built in the past 15 years have some retail component. Food and beverage used to be taboo, but today library operators are considering the notion of having a cafe or another foodservice element, as well as other retail elements. Library patrons can now enter the library space and be part of a daily interaction that is common elsewhere, such as buying a morning coffee.

Perkins + Will created a Digital Commons in the former reading room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in the District of Columbia. Located in a landmarked Mies van der Rohe building, the 11,000-sq.-ft. Digital Commons features more than 80 computers, an array of tablet devices, 3D printing, a self-publishing book machine, and technology-infused group collaboration spaces. Photo: Philip Freelon


The wall-less Digital Commons at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is equipped with mobile infrastructure to meet future demands and designed by Perkins + Will to evolve with new technology. The space is highly visible through the transparent glass street frontage. Photo: Mark Herboth Photography LLC

Whether libraries are opening branches is most often dependent on local circumstances. Lee Skolnick can’t say it’s a uniform trend, but he observed that it’s the case in some communities, while budget tightening in others has seen branches closed. “I think it’s specific to different locations and how they’ve chosen to engage with the public,” he said, adding that centralized locations may be more cost effective but run the risk of not reaching a percentage of the community that won’t travel into the city and would rather have something much more convenient.

Derek Jones doesn’t see a simple answer, either, but he does see evidence that operations may be becoming more centralized. “We’re seeing more library systems create stand-alone operations centers where they catalog and process materials. In some cases they even partner with school districts because they’re doing the same thing for the schools as they’re doing for the library. Rather than processing materials in individual branches or making it part of the central library, which is probably strapped for space in high-value real estate in a downtown central location, operations are moved out,” he said.

Gordon Carrier, too, sees centralization or decentralization as largely an issue of geography and the preferences of the jurisdiction.

Recently completed by Carrier Johnson, the Tidewater Joint Use Library in Virginia Beach, VA, is a partnership between Tidewater Community College and the city of Virginia Beach and an example of centralization.

“It reflects the trend we’re seeing where more communities are trying to combine resources to reduce redundancies and control expenses,” Carrier said. “This really benefits library services, which often can be improved in these centralized facilities.”

The Queens (NY) Library Discovery Center, designed by Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, New York, recognizes that children’s museums are offering successful themed environments that are attractive and compelling for kids, giving them larger spaces better geared toward their learning styles and interests. LHSA+DP provided interpretive master planning, exhibit design, and environmental graphic design for the project. Photo: Michael Moran / OTTO, courtesy LHSA+DP


The Children’s Library Discovery Center (CLDC) in Jamaica Queens is a three-level, science-focused children’s library that includes interactive exhibit stations developed in conjunction with the Exploratorium, the New York Hall of Science, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Working as a team with the client, their exhibit developers, and the project’s architect, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership created all the environmental graphics, way finding, and interior design enhancements to support the message of this new venture for the Queens Library—”Mapping Our World.” In addition, LHSA+DP created the under-the-sea themed environment for the early-childhood area, which includes a wrap-around mural, ceiling sculpture, and custom furniture. Photo: Michael Moran / OTTO, courtesy LHSA+DP

Just as information technology has changed, so too has the physical environment of the library been reshaped.

“Lighting has gone through a revolution; nobody is doing fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling,” Skolnick said. Lighting designers have created scenes or atmospheres, defining different areas through different lighting qualities. Ambient lighting is warmer in color temperature than it used to be, and task lighting is used more, giving a sense of working in a place as opposed to a vast space, he explained.

“Daylight is a resource for wayfinding, Gordon Carrier of Carrier Johnson + CULTURE offered. “I’m particularly interested in buildings that immediately portray their wayfinding without tricks and signs—Band-Aids, I’d call them. And daylight for us is an ideal architectural solution, and though it’s cool and green and LEED and such, it’s really always been a part of good library design, and it’s a magical way to lead someone through a space in a very elegant fashion.

In other areas, stack height has dwindled in most libraries, dropping from 88 to 94 in. to 42 and even 36 in., so there are clear sightlines. “People want to be able to see and navigate the whole space and not have large visual obstructions,” Jones said.

“The biggest driver in utilities is cooling and electrical,” Derek Jones added. “A lot of our clients told us that the duration of their patrons’ stay was highly determined by the battery life of their computer, so if you want people to stay longer you need access to power—and the traditional library had only a few power points. Now you see every table and every chair is connected with power and USB; lockers have plugs in them so people can charge their devices while they’re off doing something else.”

The Clareview branch library in Edmonton, Alberta, integrates the branch library for the area, recreation center, community meeting facilities, childcare center, and a new high school completion center. Designed by Teeple Architects, Toronto, lead design architects, and Architecture|Tkalcic Bengert, Edmonton, architect of record, the library is designed to accommodate the latest library technology and facilitates a contemporary, pro-active service model. The design of all areas is focused on creating beautiful views to the project site as well as to the numerous other activities occurring in the center. Photo: Tom Arban

Space allocation is another adjustment in contemporary library design. Areas for storing books and periodicals are being condensed, for example. “The question libraries are asking is, ‘Should I pay $X to store books, or pay half of $X for condensed storage of books and allow more space for study and collaboration areas?’ The latter often better supports community members who need the resources—or need to learn how to get them. So we are also seeing more rooms with limited privacy and perhaps a higher level of activity, although they offer some privacy for groups and collaborative learning,” Carrier said.

In the final analysis, libraries are far from obsolete, even as their service model continues to evolve.

One of the unique features of Library C1 is a new service model titled the Creative Computer Commons, or C3. An entrepreneurial zone has four multiple meeting rooms that may be used by small businesses to function on an as-needed basis. A conference center, complete with printing services, makes it possible for companies to hold all-day seminars. In addition, lab spaces will host services such as 3D printing, wood-working classes, electronics classes, and basic computer classes. Photo: Paul Brokering


Humphries Poli Architects, Denver, transformed a 1980s MCI call center into the Pikes Peak Library District’s newest library addition, Library 21C in Colorado Springs. Administration space occupies 37,000 sq. ft. while public space occupies 75,000 sq. ft. The library has an expansive collection and multiple reading areas, but also provides unique areas for children and teens. Other features are an art and exhibit hall to showcase local artists, an A/V studio for sound creation and videography, and a café. Photo: Paul Brokering

In places around the U.S., public partnerships are creating innovative new libraries to serve varied groups including town residents, college students, and K-12 schools. The arrangements are “rare but not unheard of,” according to Library Journal, citing as an example the partnership between Tidewater Community College and the city of Virginia Beach, VA, to create a dynamic 125,000-sq.-ft. joint-use library designed by Carrier Johnson + CULTURE, San Diego, along with RRMM Architects, Chesapeake, VA, and Anderson Brulé Architects, San Jose, CA. Photo: Carrier Johnson

The Skyline Hills Library in San Diego, CA, serves the very diverse and unique Skyline-Paradise Hills community. The library promotes learning and community exchanges through elements such as transparency, fragrant gardens, interactive art, and collaborative assembly space. Illustration: Little Diversified Architectural Consulting The Skyline Hills Library in San Diego, CA, serves the very diverse and unique Skyline-Paradise Hills community. The library promotes learning and community exchanges through elements such as transparency, fragrant gardens, interactive art, and collaborative assembly space. Illustration: Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

How has the role or purpose of the traditional public library changed in recent years, such as different or enhanced services? For example, has the emphasis changed from space allocated for physical collections to space for electronic resources, community activities, and learning opportunities?

In order to stay relevant in a constantly evolving world, the thriving and successful public libraries have embraced the fact that libraries are and always have been more than books and physical materials. The idea of collaborative sharing has been the foundation of libraries since their inception. Collaborative sharing being the community funding of resources that are then shared by all.  Many are unaware that the mission of libraries has often extended beyond academic pursuits into that of a community center and resource hub. In fact, some of the early Carnegie Libraries contained such community amenities as swimming pools and billiard tables and acted as community gathering spaces.

With this in mind, there has been a definite shift in libraries beyond a place where materials are simply “stored and accessed” to a place of activity and engagement and creativity.

Critical spaces in today’s successful libraries include:

active and collaboration spaceprogram and education spacemeeting room space (both small group and large group)interactive children’s area serving ages 0-12interactive teen space dedicated quiet space (because today’s public libraries aren’t quiet)

— Kimberly Bolan Cullin and Rob Cullin, Kimberly Bolan & Associates, Zionsville, IN

Public libraries are now much more than places to house books – they are becoming community centers. Once seen as a quiet place for reading and learning, the library has evolved to a more prominent, transparent community space in which formal/informal events can take place — events such as art shows, holiday celebrations, city/county meetings, voting, etc.

In addition to an emphasis on community activity spaces, programmatically, the future public library also incorporates a series of classrooms where lessons are taught by library staff or external instructors (such classes as English as a second language, entrepreneurial workshops, technology courses, etc.)  

With all of these recent needs and enhanced services, there is still a need for books — particularly children’s books as many families continue to use the public library as a way to introduce children to many types of literature and to establish a love for reading.

– Leigh Anne Jones, Studio Leader, LA Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

As the conversation in the United States is shifting to address issues of economic disparity and upwards mobility, we believe that a redefined library could be the catalyst for solving these issues. Libraries ought to position themselves as Solution Centers, places where new knowledge and new skills can be gained, that support of the entrepreneur, with technology-supported meeting spaces that can be booked and tech-tools for the Maker-generation that can be used or rented (3D printers, CNC Machines, Digital tables) There is a myriad of opportunities for the library to behave more as a modern day Atheneum, bringing likeminded individuals together to collaborate, share, learn and initiate new ventures”

– Tomas Jimenez-Eliaeson, Director of Design, Charlotte Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

Are libraries becoming decentralized? That is, more branches, mobile, and online resources? How has this affected library design?

Yes and no. Libraries are starting to take many shapes for a number of reasons, including sprawling communities, changing user needs and an increase in online resources. Branch libraries, however, do continue to be an important part of the community – particularly smaller communities and those that are underprivileged (in which the library remains the primary source for technology used for job searches, healthcare enrollment, etc.). The biggest design change is incorporating more space for users and less space for book collections. This additional space for people allows libraries to remain a place for learning but in a very different way than libraries of the past.”  

– Leigh Anne Jones, Studio Leader, LA Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

We see more consolidation in physical spaces, however there’s more of a push for library staff to get outside of the physical library building to bring the services to the public rather than wait for them to walk in the building. The library building is simply the nexus or infrastructure of resources, but the virtual walls of the library extend all over the community.  Getting library staff out of the physical building and into the community is also a way to market the library of today and to get rid of old stereotypes. — Kimberly Bolan Cullin and Rob Cullin, Kimberly Bolan & Associates, Zionsville, IN

It has been said current libraries are an isolating, or individual, experience. Is there a trend to making them more collaborative spaces? How do you balance the desire of some patrons for privacy and quiet with the desire of others to interact?

Over the past year Kimberly Bolan and Associates has conducted more than 200 focus groups with 3,000 attendees, served over 30 clients, and conducted 26 surveys with 6,000 respondents. One of the biggest issues for people, across the board, is quiet space versus active space. There has been a strong movement for over the past 10+ years to make libraries more of a community engagement space with the emphasis on collaboration in small and large groups, programming and education, etc. As a result, many libraries that were designed in the era of quiet and “shushing” have left little to no space for those seeking the quiet solitude that they need.  A key aspect for many of our facility projects is how to evolve the layout and configuration of library spaces to support BOTH the quiet and active needs of the various users and activities being held within the library’s walls. This can be accomplished through a variety of approaches such as architectural walls system, new furniture solutions that encompass acoustical surrounds, and construction of walls to segregate quiet and active areas. — Kimberly Bolan Cullin and Rob Cullin, Kimberly Bolan & Associates, Zionsville, IN

At Little, we are highly passionate about how innovation in the design of public libraries can support a new world mindset – a paradigm that includes the irresistible accessibility to content, the possibility to learn anytime and anywhere, the digitalization of all knowledge, and the exponential growth of multi-media as a way to consume and produce content.

As we evaluate the public library, our team is looking at how these changes may affect the current model, its service to the community, the guidance to knowledge, the physical and virtual design of its environments, and the user experience of those environments. We believe in an environment that promotes learning in its largest sense and is not limited to printed and digital media. The future concept supports a much wider understanding of a space used for all purposes that unite knowledge and the community with both intellectual and social dimensions, a place for cultural and community exchanges as much as scholarly discourse.

Currently the library is an isolating and individualized experience. The future of the public library experience is about Community connections – uniting with people that have similar intellectual and knowledge desires, a place to collaborate, learn and interact (social media, co-working/maker spaces, and crowd-sourcing creation are opening doors to these ideas).”

— Tomas Jimenez-Eliaeson, Director of Design, Charlotte Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

Besides space allocation, how have the physical attributes of libraries changed? For example, daylighting, artificial lighting standards, accommodation to technology, energy efficiency, sustainability?

“In the past, a library consisted of large/tall bays of stacks that drown out any available natural daylight. Allowing natural light to spill into the interior of libraries is critical as it is an element that impacts human health.

Intuitive design has also become increasingly important in libraries by sequencing of spaces, detailing and clear material transitions that result in a better user experience and less stress.

Artwork is also becoming increasingly important in public projects. For libraries, this is a great opportunity to tap into the artistry of local talent.

With cities/communities challenged with ever shrinking budgets, energy efficiency is important. Smaller budgets have also led to smaller number of staff to manage the libraries; therefore, open floor plans are important to allow visibility to all areas from the reference desk.” — Leigh Anne Jones, Studio Leader, LA Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

There has definitely been a greater focus over the past 10+ years on the integration of more natural and aesthetically pleasing lighting.  A key complaint in older libraries is the institutional feel of the lighting in addition to the institutional feel of the building. In addition, technology has been absolutely critical to the mission of the library.  From providing computers, to Wi-Fi, to power access; today’s libraries must be serving the full spectrum of user needs in regards to technology.  In particular, until the last decade, most libraries were not designed with enough power access for users.  This is a key limitation in many library facilities.  Fortunately, new solutions have emerged to help get power closer to the users at the point of use at an economical cost of implementation. — Kimberly Bolan Cullin and Rob Cullin, Kimberly Bolan & Associates, Zionsville, IN

Are good design and aesthetics an important element in library planning, or are they optional extras?

From our firm’s perspective, design and aesthetics are absolutely critical to the success and usability of a great 21st century library. The level of emphasis that each community places on this greatly varies. A key function of our firm’s role is to help library administration understand that investing money in these areas isn’t wasteful or frivolous, but a critical part of making the library useable and desirable to the community.  The success of the library is just as dependent on great building and interior design as it is on the staff, collections, and services of the library. — Kimberly Bolan Cullin and Rob Cullin, Kimberly Bolan & Associates, Zionsville, IN

Yes, good design and aesthetics should be how libraries (and all buildings) are conceived. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that a well-designed library needs to cost more but it does mean the goals and needs of the facility need to be strictly evaluated so the facility stays relevant and exceeds user expectations.

— Leigh Anne Jones, Studio Leader, LA Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

Other comments and observations.

Ideas For The Future Library:

We are looking at enriching the learning experience. Taking the book as a starting point, and develop that acquired knowledge into a more immersive experience through interactive panels such as Perceptive Pixel ( which shows the possibility of digging deeper through collaborative research in a graphically interactive way; and through virtual reality enhancing of the physical environment, as with technologies like Aurasma which take personal mobile devices to promote a deeper level of learning experience. The highest value brought on by the explosions of new technologies lies in the power of sharing data, work, or research. The open visibility of sharing information in the public realm could intrinsically became the most important aspect of the library experience.

Customization of the library experience to each user. Libraries should ask and know: where have you been? Where are you going? Libraries should have a client management system that supports each user’s goals in learning, research and interests; that suggests and feeds individuals with additional information that could be very valuable to the client, a concept that Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger called The Clue Train Manifesto. As part of our experience in diverse project types, we are exploring such a concept with our retail and education clients, what we call the Customer Data Mapping Process. It is a process that identifies a customer’s journey before, while, and after the experience. It is applicable to all industries as it is a process, but the metrics are customized for each industry. In education, we are looking at it as a way to track a student prior, while, and after they have gone through the learning experience. Such a system would provide libraries a way to measure their patrons needs, wants, and would also suggest innovation to both the virtual and physical environments, and programmatic offerings to transform the user experience.

Shown is a library concept for a competition in Bulgaria. The study zone focuses on the redefined multimedia experience that encourages collaboration through elements such as interactive panels. Illustration: Little Diversified Architectural Consulting Shown is a library concept for a competition in Bulgaria. The study zone focuses on the redefined multimedia experience that encourages collaboration through elements such as interactive panels. Illustration: Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

With increasing costs of education, and lowering costs of personal technology and free access to information, self-education may very well be the next frontier. When you have websites like Innocentive ( that will pay you for providing solution to a challenge, or websites like Ohio State University’s that provide 100+ chemistry courses online for free, it’s easy to speculate that at some point it may be more about your ideas than your degree. The public library will be instrumental in providing opportunities and solutions for entrepreneurship; it will be a place where patrons, from different walks of life, can collaborate, on an as needed basis, on projects or on a partnership venture. Temporary partnerships could be created, similar to what Grind in New York ( has evolved to be: a third place workplace where potential partnerships can sprout at any moment; where entrepreneurship rises outside of the standard venues; and where it is supported by the needed infrastructure, i.e.: teleconference rooms with state of the art technologies, video recording, audio recording, printers, large scale scanners, printers, and screens, etc… in short, a pay as you go workplace. It could become a successful revenue generator for libraries regardless of size.

People still crave libraries to be in a social environment that advocates knowledge and expanding the intellect combined with social. One might say it is similar to Starbucks with the difference being at a library, you don’t have to buy anything – equal access to knowledge.”

Tomas Jimenez-Eliaeson, Director of Design, Charlotte Community Practice, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting

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