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New Libraries Turn the Page

April 11th, 2011

I grew up around libraries. My mother is a librarian at the Library of Congress, and she used to take me along to her library science classes when she was pursuing her master’s. As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I had a part-time job working in the two main libraries on campus. I felt lucky to be paid to troll through stacks, retrieve rare books and skim through dissertations on I-knew-not-what. I still feel happy whenever I’m in a library.

This month, in honor of National Library Week (April 10 – 16), I’ve been thinking about the current state of libraries – and it’s generally not good. When budgets are squeezed, libraries are often the first to go on the chopping block. This has been a perennial battle here in my hometown of Arlington, VA, and library systems in Baltimore, Atlanta, San Antonio, Arizona and California have all been threatened with cuts recently, too.

Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Martin Luther King Library, whose classical precedents are evident in its order and symmetry if nothing else, sets the tone for newer branches now being built. Photo: David Monack

Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, whose classical precedents are evident in its order and symmetry, if nothing else, sets the tone for newer branches now being built. Photo: David Monack

With this in mind, I am so heartened and impressed by what Washington, DC, is doing with its public library system. In the last couple years, the DC government has built or restored 15 of its library branches all over the city, from the most affluent neighborhoods to the most downtrodden. Not only is the city supporting libraries and literacy, it is also making a high-profile investment in architecture. Led by Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the city has hired several renowned architectural firms for the various branches, emphasizing modern design, community input and sustainability.

No one firm has a lock on the library system’s new look, but it is safe to say that the specter of Mies van der Rohe hangs over the proceedings. The District’s boxy main branch, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, remains the only Mies-designed building in the nation’s capital. Forty years after it was built, it now looks fairly conservative, and even almost classical, in its order and symmetry.

I imagine that traditionalists who would scoff at that statement might also find much to lament in the modern aesthetic of many of the new libraries. For the most part, though, I think the designs fit the multidimensional and complex program that 21st-century libraries must now offer. In this day and age, libraries are no longer simply book repositories, but also community centers, lecture halls, playgroup meeting areas, teen hangouts and more.

The architects involved have also taken the needs, challenges and demographics of particular neighborhoods into account when designing the new buildings. An intimidating, Jeffersonian brick behemoth might be exactly the wrong thing to build, for example, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood desperate to lower its crime rate and get its young people off the streets, while offering transparency and access.

The new Anacostia Library in Washington, D.C., one of more than a dozen new design and restoration projects that are energizing and renewing the D.C. Public Library system. Photo: Freelon Group

The new Anacostia Library in Washington, DC, one of more than a dozen new design and restoration projects that are energizing and renewing the DC Public Library system. Photo: Freelon Group

Take the new branch in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood, designed by the Freelon Group, perhaps most famous as the designer of the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. The building has a horizontal, human-scaled appearance, abundant windows and a bright roof scheme, as well as several sustainable elements such as recycled materials and a vegetative bioswale outside. Since its opening last year, the branch has greatly enlivened a thoroughfare in Anacostia that has seen its share of violent crime and still has several boarded-up buildings.

Tradition hasn’t been ignored in the DC library program, though. The Georgetown Neighborhood Library, for example, is a stately Georgian Revival building dating from 1935 that was severely damaged in a 2007 fire. The city hired Martinez & Johnson Architects, in partnership with Hoshide Williams, to open up and expand interior reading and meeting spaces, while maintaining and restoring the building’s historic appearance.

While other localities are closing the book on their libraries, the nation’s capital is making a major investment in both libraries and architecture. Like a classic book that’s read again and again, this is one story that I hope gets repeated elsewhere.

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  1. Thayer-D
    April 13th, 2011 at 14:50 | #1

    I’m not sure these modernist designs are any better at fullfilling the “multidimensional and complex program that 21st-century libraries” must fulfill any better than if it was clad in stone. If that where the case I think Grand Central Terminal’s monstrous complexity would suffer from it’s Beaux Arts shell, which it dosen’t. If anything, all the transparency might have detrimental effects on books and reading light quality. It’s also incredibly patronizing to imply these inner city kids would be intimidated by a “Jeffersonian brick behemoth” as if they would be offended or scared that someone thought high enough of them to build a solid structure with quiet dignity. As you can see, it’s all about word smithing when talking about styles, which is all you’re really refereing to. While I commend the city’s actions and actually like the sculptural qualities of some of these structres, it’s incredibly disengenuous to impart so much functional importance to what is essentially a subjective analysis of styles. One hopes these new libraries won’t also be plagued by the spectar of MLK’s incredibly disfunctional plan, regardless of style.

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