I appreciate days when I can land in a town mid-afternoon and take a writing break. My preferred location is always the local library. I have become accustomed to nice libraries. Over the past twenty years, Massachusetts offered cities grants to renovate or rebuild libraries; virtually every Massachusetts town has a state-of-the art library. As I’ve traveled west, I have been impressed by how many other cities and towns have impressive libraries. Poland OH, Livingston, MT, and Coeur d’Alene ID all have beautiful libraries. But few public libraries compare to Seattle, where the city passed a bond issue to renovate all twenty-three branch libraries. They also razed the 1960’s era main library and constructed an eleven-story architectural landmark designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus in its place. I toured the building, which opened just over ten years ago, with Valerie Wonder, Community Engagement Manager: and Rekha Kover, Youth and Family Learning Manager. Along the way we talked about tomorrow.
The Seattle Public Library is an intellectual jigsaw puzzle; eleven laterally shifted levels encased in an angular steel and glass skin that contains almost 10,000 diamond-shaped glass panels. Two vertical elements – one a concrete set of stairs and elevators, the other a black column of stairs and services, plus columns skewed to various angles anchor floor plates that otherwise have little relationship to each other. Level 6 through 10 is the book spiral, a continuous ramp that marches through the Dewey decimal system to provide continuous access to the main collection. The building is simultaneously spacious (it‘s often possible to see through the entire space) and maze-like. Narrow ramps, imperceptivity shallow, create literally hundreds of discrete horizontal surfaces. It is architecture with a capital ‘A’. It demands to be noticed everywhere you look, with every step you take.
Neither Valerie nor Rekha were part of the building’s conception, but both have worked there for many years. They consider it both an honor and a challenge to work in a piece of distinguished architecture. They often give directions to baffled patrons, which enhances interaction. But they encounter people visiting the building to experience the geometry rather than to use library services. Now that the building’s first decade has passed, there is talk of making it more comfortable; creating interactive spaces in the stark children’s zone and enlivening the dynamic yet silent upper reading room. “85% of the people who use and work in the building love it.” Valerie asserts. Yet there is trepidation in her voice when she talks about changing this seemingly inflexible edifice. “We’ve been trying to do more programs in the plaza outside, but even the plaza is sloped. There are few flat places to set things up.”
When we arrived at the top level, with its dramatic views down into the reading area as well as out toward the city, our conversation moved from the building to its function – the role of the Seattle Public Library. “So much of what I think about in the future of the library will happen beyond these walls. Seattle is an affluent and growing city, yet we see the income disparities that other areas experience as well. We are committed to reaching everyone. For the most challenged members of our community that means going outside the library.” Seattle Public Library still has bookmobiles and a mail order service for movement impaired people. More recent programs include Wi-Fi hot spots that can be checked out like books, and digital access training in the community. And my favorite, a program of mobile libraries by bicycle!
How will we live tomorrow?
“Thinking about the impact of our programs is important. Sometimes promoting equal access actually works against our intention. The week after we made circulating hotspots available, I was visiting a friend in his cabin and he said, ‘Look at this cool thing I got a the library; my own hot spot.’ The point of making those available was to spread Wi-Fi to the community that lacked it, not put it in the purse of those who already do. So we continue to tweak programs until they match our objectives.” – Valerie Wonder
“Libraries are embedded in a democratic ideal of equal access. Our concept of equal access has evolved to customizing access to different groups based on their particular needs. For years the rhetoric around library access was to engage the community and bring them here. Now, the focus is on going to the community wherever it is. Everyone is welcome here, but many can use our services and never come to this building. “ – Rekha Kover