In June, an eye-catching yellow and black “open during construction” sign enticed Chloe Craig, 15, to check out the Winnetka Public Library, which she had visited only once since she moved to the Chicago suburb a year earlier. After hanging out in the teen area, home to retail-store-style face-out books, and the Studio, which features machines for sewing, embroidering, engraving, and 3-D printing, she fell in love with what she now calls her second home.

But could that have happened just a few years earlier? The 60-year-old midcentury-modern building was popular but clearly needed some love: there was asbestos to be removed; the library wanted the bathrooms to be gender neutral and ADA compliant; a new boiler was needed, as well as a new roof and fire alarms. And that, library director Rebecca Wolf says, presented “an opportunity.”

Like many libraries around the country, the Winnetka Public Library serves an affluent but fiscally conservative community. But residents saw the value in turning a much-needed update into a five-year, nearly $3 million face-lift. The library got its new boiler. It also got a perforated walnut ceiling to absorb sound, new LED rings that hang from a vaulted ceiling, cordless battery-charging stations at all library tables, three study rooms, a “quiet room,” a new makerspace, and six new flat-screen televisions.

“Live within your budget, and live within your building,” were the marching orders, library president Brian Johnson says. And the library did just that: the community largely paid for the renovation through reserves rather than through fund-raising, referendums, or tax increases. And by clearing out old titles from the shelves, such as “nonfiction about the Chicago Bears from the 1980s,” Wolf says, the library did it all without increasing the footprint of the 22,000-sq.-ft. building, which still houses an impressive 103,000 books and other items.

“The renovation has just created this energy,” says Bridget Lewis, who takes her five-year-old son Tommy to the library almost every day. “It’s now a 21st-century library that doesn’t just lend books; it’s a community center.”

Lewis and her son recently embroidered his name on a backpack at the Studio. This summer, a bride stitched her wedding dress on one of four sewing machines there. Someone else etched “Hello, is it me you’re cooking for” on a cutting board with Lionel Richie’s face.

“When my son has a hole in his pajamas, we go down and take a sewing machine out,” Lewis says. They also check out the new displays of books, which are often organized into enticing themed collections. “It’s just totally spruced up, light, airy,” she adds, noting that it’s not just her young son who enjoys the space: she has attended mixology classes at the library and even etched monogrammed glasses there to give as gifts.

Reimagining Buildings

Nationwide, libraries have come a long way. “The library of today is more than just a place where you can get books,” says librarian Jeffrey Bowen, cochair of the American Library Association/American Institute of Architects Library Building Awards. Rather, he notes, libraries today have public meeting areas, flexible rooms, makerspaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, and outdoor reading areas.

Gone are the days of “building a box for books,” says the other committee cochair, Peter Bolek, HBM Architects president and director of design. “The objective then was to just stack as much material in the buildings as you possibly could.” Today, librarians and architects who start out updating plumbing and removing asbestos end up reimagining the entire building.

The library of today is more than just a place where you can get books...

“Why put it back together the same way it was?” says Bolek, whose firm has worked on more than 400 library projects. “If we’re going to take it apart, let’s put it back together the right way.”

Of course, it’s not always an easy decision. Communities often grapple with whether to tear down old libraries and build new ones, and with whether they should do so on the same sites or elsewhere—and that’s not a bad thing, Bolek says. “Before you sink a ton of money into renovating a building, you need to step back and ask, ‘Am I in the right location?’ ” he notes. “Can you be more economical in a new building? Can you do everything you’re looking to do on this site?”

Though these are questions worth exploring, often demolition is unnecessary or impractical. For example, communities tend to balk at razing historic buildings, such as Carnegie libraries. And a renovation can usually do the trick, says Bolek, who has renovated many library and nonlibrary buildings and is currently involved in transforming part of a GM-Saturn plant in Springhill, Tenn., into a 50,000-sq.-ft. library.

Revitalizing Dead Space

So, how does one design a modern library space that can suit users of all ages? It’s no easy feat. But to make all constituencies happy, architects can zone spaces so they progress from, for example, more social and noisy to more solitary and quiet. A big glass partition, like one added in the redesigned Winnetka library, can efficiently separate the children’s room (and keep the littlest kids from running off) while avoiding a closed-off look. In Winnetka, the children’s room also got some common sense fixes—such as improved shelving that’s no longer too tall for kids to reach.

Another challenge is the creation of timeless designs. For example, many architects and librarians worry that makerspaces may wind up as just a fad. Flexibility is the key. At the much-heralded Dokk1 library in Denmark, for example, the layout allows for librarians to briefly bring out a 3-D printer when needed and to take it away when interest wanes. “Librarians need to make sure they’re able to keep the room fresh,” Bolek says.

In that spirit, the Studio makerspace in Winnetka is open and flexible. “They asked that most of the work in there be a furniture solution,” says architect Tiffany Nash from Chicago-based firm Product Archiciture + Design, who worked on Winnetka’s redesign.

Dan Pohrte, another one of the Winnetka architects, notes that creating various seating and table types is “a good place to start,” because strategically placed seating can provide a sense of privacy without having to build more rooms. He also applauded Winnetka’s long-term approach, which “phased in” renovations across several years. “As funds become available, you do the projects,” he says.

Many renovated libraries today must also serve a wide range of uses—such as senior centers, rec centers, and education hubs. Yet books and reference materials are still the stars; in fact, one of the key parts of Winnetka’s renovation “was to highlight the books,” Wolf says, with covers that face out. “These are the impulse buys.” When readers can see the cover, “who doesn’t want to read Shark-Mad Stanley?” she asks.

Communities today are also demanding environmentally friendly designs. Nationwide, architects are creating exciting, sustainable libraries that feature, among other things, energy-use gauges as well as roof systems that capture and filter rainwater for restrooms. These new green buildings can cut costs and help educate residents about energy efficiency. How things have changed since the original Winnetka library building, which was located where today’s current library stands, opened in 1910 featuring what the Chicago Tribune described as “a club and smoking room for men and boys in the basement.”


Of course, the obvious and best way to find out what the community wants in a library remodel is simply to ask them. With its project, Winnetka erred “on the side of overengaging,” Johnson notes, citing numerous patron surveys. “People wanted change but not too much,” he says about the results of those surveys.

“There will always be books, but a lot of renovations have allowed for so much more to happen at the library,” Bowen says. “Libraries have always wanted to position themselves to serve their communities as best they could, and I think the excitement that can be generated through a renovation allows them to do so much more than they could before—that goes well beyond simply checking out a book.”

Based on its surveys, Winnetka had a good idea of what the community wanted. But still, there was the matter of where to start. So, Wolf says, the library basically asked its users, “What is the deadest space that needs to be revitalized?” That question led directly to the Studio, which was built on the library’s lower level—which, previously, had largely gone unused. Now, 600–700 people per month use the space for do-it-yourself crafts.

“You want to build libraries that can inspire people,” Bolek says, noting that they shouldn’t be eat-your-vegetables types of place. And that’s certainly true of Winnetka. A sign in the Studio says it all: “Libraries are my candy store.”

Of course, the surveys also found that, for all the changes in libraries, some things remain the same. “People still are here for books,” Wolf says, and they also want and value librarians. One of the common refrains Winnetka heard during its remodel, he adds, was, “Please make sure to have humans.”