Q: Recently, here in New York, there has been a great deal of public outcry over plans to redo the New York Public Library’s Main Library. As technology changes the world we live in, it certainly seems like we’re seeing the “future of libraries” debate actively play out in discussions about redesigning library space. As if public building projects were not complicated enough, for libraries, the complexity goes deeper, right to the heart of a cherished institution, and planners must balance ever-changing technology and its impact on libraries with the traditional appeal of the library space and its mission—no small feat.

You were the director of the Seattle Public Library system during a major (and much-heralded) building project—the creation of the new Central Library. The iconic Rem Koolhaas–designed building, completed in 2004, is now regarded as a landmark of Seattle. But getting there couldn’t have been easy. As the NYPL (and countless others) begins addressing its space issues, can you tell us what the process of redesigning Seattle’s main library was like? There’s also a technological aspect to this question: for those undertaking projects now, do you have any thoughts or advice on what the next generation of library spaces should focus on?

A: I am going to answer these two questions together, because I think they are inseparable. Two clarifying points before I begin: I was only on the very periphery of planning for the Seattle Public Library’s then-new Central Library. As a member of the administrative team, I took part in the early meetings, and heard regular reports, but I wasn’t particularly engaged with what was going on. I had then, and still have, trouble understanding blueprints!

Secondly, I contacted Steve DelVecchio, a lecturer at the University of Washington Information School and a regional manager at the SPL, to hear his thoughts. (Steve made it clear via his e-mail reply that he is not speaking for SPL.)

But what I remember best is the many meetings that were held and committees that were organized, so that the public and library staff could have input into all aspects of the project. Although the Library Board made the final decision in selecting the architect, Rem Koolhaas, a committee—made up of interested people from all walks of life, including Matthew Stadler, a writer—was deeply involved as well.

Because building a new Central Library was part of a larger bond measure that involved either renovating or rebuilding each branch library in the system, SPL convened what were called “Hopes and Dreams” meetings so that people could express what they wanted in their new or refurbished libraries. This was an important step in the process. After all, if we believe that libraries are major public buildings, then it should go without saying that our end-users need to be heard from, and more importantly, listened to and taken seriously.

As Steve said: “We need to look at spaces from the point of view first of the patrons who are going to be using them. How will they be using the space? What makes them feel welcome and comfortable? What do they want to do in the space? How do they want the space to make them feel? I think many patrons have very strong ideas about what they want from a library space.”

And then...

But obviously, there are other issues to consider as well. As Steve also said, “We must include, but not privilege over the patron’s needs, the needs of our frontline staff. Does the space facilitate library staff of all classifications working together as a team to help patrons?”

In short, flexibility is vital. When I learned about Rem Koolhaas’s idea for a books spiral in the new Central Library, it both made sense and, to me, was intellectually exciting. As the SPL Web site explains, “The Books Spiral is four floors of book stacks, connected by gentle ramps. The majority of the nonfiction collection—75% of the entire collection—is located on the Books Spiral. This lets the nonfiction collection exist in one continuous run, and avoids the problem of having to move books into other rooms or floors as the collection expands. The spiral lets all patrons—including people with disabilities—move throughout the entire collection without depending on stairs, escalators or elevators.”

As Steve pointed out to me, “If there is one thing we should have learned from the last 20—or the last 120—years, in terms of library-space design, it is that neither library managers nor architects are good at predicting what the best space design will be 20, 10, or even 5 years out.... Wouldn’t it be delightful if all of our spaces could be reconfigured to meet what our patrons need today without undergoing major capital projects and renovations?”

With regard to the big issue facing libraries in their redesigns (i.e., technology), I think what libraries need to be most concerned with is increasing bandwidth. We need, Steve observed, “spaces that support patrons use of their own increasingly lightweight and portable information and communication technology tools (smartphones, tablets, ultralight laptops, and soon, I’m sure, a variety of wearable devices).”

He also believes that we need to pay more effective and expert attention to the acoustic and lighting qualities of our spaces, especially in the context of how they will actually be used. Children’s areas, for example, should muffle and absorb sound, not amplify it into the rest of the library.

In short, we should aim for buildings that inspire but don’t overwhelm or intimidate, that are warm and welcoming, that are safe, and that allow both staff and patrons to navigate them with a minimum of confusion.

Of course, because technology changes the very nature of what libraries do in some areas, this is a complicated issue, and how to fulfill the desires of future generations of library users while supporting our traditional, historic role is the question du jour.

Take a Hike

In this month’s list, Nancy clears her head with good books about long walks:

Simon Armitage, Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey
Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople
Jason Goodwin, On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul
Linda Lawrence Hunt, Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America
Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah
Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Geoff Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust