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Library by Design: DC’s 21st-Century Branches

By Rebecca Miller, Sep 14, 2010 , here

Flexibility is the key concept in the design of new branches at the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL). What that means generally is anyone’s guess, but a tour of two new buildings in DC’s historically burdened library system proves it doesn’t denote an empty box with movable walls. Instead, it translates to sleek modern design, green features throughout, and plenty of technology for patrons, all of which and more, as Director Ginnie Cooper says, look to the future instead of the past.

Two busloads of librarians glimpsed that future on June 26, 2010, breaking away from the Urban Libraries Council membership meeting during the American Library Association annual conference. They traveled with Cooper to the Anacostia Neighborhood Library, which opened on April 26, and the Benning Neighborhood Library, opened April 5. These branches, and a handful of other completed projects, are part of an aggressive reinvigoration of the library that includes an innovative interim library strategy (see “Inside the Interims“) and plans for three new permanent branches and three major renovations in the next year.

ljx100902lbdwebDCside1(Original Import)
FUTURE FOCUS The sleek, spacious, sunny reading area of the Anacostia Neighborhood Library (top left) and the modern, colorful exterior of the Benning Neighborhood Library (top right) are both representative of DCPL’s systemwide “reinvigoration,” which includes the implementation of interim libraries to ensure continued service. Photos c/o DCPL
ljx100902lbdwebDCside2(Original Import)
DC TOUR Librarians tour DCPL’s newest branches last June: left to right, the group pours into Anacostia; DCPL director Ginnie Cooper (in multicolored sweater) addresses librarians inside; separate return bins for popular materials help to streamline processing. At Benning, LJ Librarian of the Year 2006 Rivkah Sass (center) speaks with fellow tour participants; Benning’s extensively daylit, multilevel interior; Columbus Metropolitan Library, OH, director Pat Losinski (r.) speaks with tour group members in Benning’s reading area, where public art enlivens the stacks. Photos by Rebecca Miller

Spaces without walls
The promised flexibility is created by playing with walls, or rather having very few of them. Space is defined in the high-raftered public spaces, instead, with partial walls to divide big service areas, or with shelving to shelter readers from the hubbub of the library. Important exceptions include small group study spaces and small program rooms. Each building also has a multipurpose meeting room on the lower level that holds at least 100.

Underfoot, a raised floor houses the electrical and mechanical systems in an accessible space, also anticipating the changes to come as service needs shift and technology develops.

The high ceilings and the sight lines created by the open design invite visitors deep into the space. Vast glass exterior walls enable daylighting and convey transparency in a larger sense, encouraging views both in to what the library holds and out toward the neighborhoods.

Setting a bar
These branches, like all new projects in the DCPL lineup, are informed by a design program created to set a standard for all buildings in the system. A template or a springboard, depending on your perspective and how well the library pulls off local community input for extras, the document details the mission and identifies “the key components of a new 21st century neighborhood library.”

The language is grand (under Building: “a destination, an anchor, a place for learning and meeting that is welcoming and comfortable for the whole community”) and nitty-gritty (under Community Meeting Spaces: “study rooms [six, each for one or two people] with Wi-Fi”). In between it touches on everything from the building’s look and feel to LEED certification and accessibility goals to required public service areas and the collection gathered in them to seating needs and basic technology to deliver to patrons.

At Anacostia, a glowing modern cube in the middle of a neighborhood full of red brick duplexes and houses, a tour participant asked about the obvious contrast with the surroundings. No aesthetic clash, according to Cooper. Rather, the building reflects the neighborhood’s forward gaze. “The community recognized that what had been torn down was of the past 50 years,” she said, and they saw this as the future.

Author Information
Rebecca Miller is Executive Editor, Features, LJ

Filed under: New Libraries,

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