The Connected Library

Ideas and innovations found in school libraries can help reshape the design of community libraries.

The modern library is no longer an island, isolated from the other services provided in the community. Public libraries are evolving to serve a wide variety of functions, not unlike a library on a school campus.

“The library on a school’s campus is not just a library,” says LPA Design Director Kate Mraw, who has worked on dozens of K-12 libraries. “It is used for professional development, community gatherings, back-to-school nights, and hosting industry speakers. It is an active hub of environments.”

For the next generation of public libraries, the concepts found in K-12 and college campuses can play an important role in shaping the evolution in library operation, making them responsive to the different needs of the community. Instead of treating public and education as separate worlds, designers can learn from the school library experience and create better ways to provide resources to the public, says LPA Director of Civic + Cultural Jeremy Hart.

“We have the ability to learn what’s going on in a variety of library types, adapting and implementing ideas that resonate with users and reinforce the learning process,” Hart says.

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For the Palomar College Learning Resource Center, “floating” upper levels provide shade for outdoor meeting spaces.

The Centerpiece of the Community

Around the country, libraries are already operating more like community centers, hosting a wide range of services and activities. The next generation of library will play different roles, connecting with young and old. “The library can be the centerpiece of building a community,” Hart says.

Designed in the past as standalone buildings surrounded by a sea of parking, libraries are often developed these days as part of an array of community resources. LPA is working with a developer in Southern California on a development that places a new library in a mix of office, housing and retail. “It puts a library into the mix of the neighborhood, so it becomes more a part of your daily life,” Hart says. “The development is the destination, not just the library.”

“We weren’t designing based on how a library has worked in the past. We were thinking about it in terms of flexibility and adaptability over time.” - Ozzie Tapia, Project Designer

Modern campus libraries operate in a similar fashion, serving as a link between different services and programs. On the Palomar College campus, the Learning Resource Center designed by LPA consolidates a wide variety of services into a single 85,000-square-foot, four-story facility. Academic technology spaces, a tutoring center, study rooms and the traditional library are distributed on different levels of the center, linked by a transparent atrium. The library serves as an information marketplace, says Winston Bao, LPA Director of Programming and Furniture Services. “You don’t see a single book until you get to the fourth floor.”

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Many of the concepts and designs found in school libraries can help shape the evolution of community libraries.

Every element of the library, including the repetitive steel system used for the structure and the configuration of collaborative spaces, was designed for flexibility, recognizing the shifting demands on the library. “We weren’t designing based on how a library has worked in the past,” says LPA Project Designer Ozzie Tapia. “We were thinking about it in terms of flexibility and adaptability over time.”

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The Palomar College LRC is designed to consolidate many services and functions into one facility.

Flexibility and adaptability are key elements of any campus library. Open layouts, movable book stacks, scalable furniture, operable walls, after-school care and self-service checkout are all increasingly common attributes of school libraries. On any given day, a school library may need to be converted into an auditorium for 200 people or serve as a venue for a digital conference. Activated outdoor spaces are essential on many campuses.

“All these things that we’re doing academically could have a great influence on a public library,” Mraw says. “Instead of separating uses, the convertibility of these spaces allows them to be multifunctional and more impactful.”

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The design of the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library included many features supported by the community, including the link to the surrounding neighborhood.

“If we don’t continue to reinvest in our libraries, then we’re potentially cutting off access to resources for huge sectors of our community who wouldn’t otherwise have that kind of access.” Jeremy Hart, Director of Civic and Cultural

Elements of a Successful Library

By necessity, designers of campus libraries are looking for innovations to serve the diverse, constantly changing needs of students. For Smith High School’s library in Carrollton, Texas, LPA designers included a virtual reality room (the VR360 Lab) for virtual field trips, an assembly room with bleacher seating, a career and college center, a media lab and a café dubbed “Starbooks.”

New libraries are including research studios and quiet spaces, reflecting research that emphasizes the continued importance of head-down time. There has been a resurgence in quiet spaces in recent years, Mraw says. “It can’t be only open and collaborative spaces,” she says. “In order to support the process of collaboration and innovation, you need those sitting-under-the-apple-tree types of moments.”

The elements of a successful school library “absolutely apply” to a public library, Mraw says. “The library becomes this center,” Mraw says. “The amenities become functional and contribute to the knowledge development of the community.”

Schools are increasingly partnering with business and community groups to achieve their goals, emulating development and programs in the public sector. Corporate and university relationships help campuses develop resources that generate programs and skilled workers in-sync with the needs of the larger community.

“A library is a great way to reinvest in the community services in a neighborhood,” Hart says.

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The two-story library and media center at Tradition Elementary in St. Hedwig, Texas, features a grand staircase that acts as an amphitheater for presentations and events.

In a city south of Los Angeles, LPA has been hired to design the renovation of a 65,000-square-foot, 1970s-era library that is part of the civic center, an important piece of the revitalized community. The process will include designers from LPA’s education practice, which has helped design more than 250 libraries. And it will start with an exploration of the different needs and goals of the community, Hart says.

“Through outreach and research, we can find the spirit of the community library and focus it into a resource for community access, equity and inclusion that weaves people together,” Hart says.

“In order to support the process of collaboration and innovation, you need those sitting-under-the-apple-tree types of moments.” - Kate Mraw, Design Director

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Open layouts with movable furniture offer administrators the freedom to rearrange a space to meet the changing needs of the community.

Creating the Link to the Community

In many ways, libraries serve as a bridge to the community, linking diverse socioeconomic groups.

“If we don’t continue to reinvest in our libraries, then we’re potentially cutting off access to resources for huge sectors of our community who wouldn’t otherwise have that kind of access,” Hart says.

The library should reflect the community, including all age groups and the continuity of learning. “It’s not a place of objects. It’s a place of knowledge,” Hart says. Every community is different, with its own priorities and goals. “One size fits all” doesn’t work for libraries. Bringing in designers with diverse expertise in library design helps to expand the opportunities for a library to uplift different aspects of the community.

“We work to understand what’s important to the community,” Hart says. “Our ultimate measure of success is when the completed project is embraced by the stakeholders.”

A Neighborhood Takes Charge

In a blue-collar Southern California neighborhood, tensions ran high when planning started for a new community library.

The design process for a new library opened old wounds for the residents of the North Long Beach section of Long Beach, California. For years they had felt left behind by the coastal city’s growth and gentrification. Failed attempts in the past to build a new community library were evidence of what they viewed as decades of inattention.

The old library was small, but beloved. “Everybody in the community knew the library,” says LPA Design Director Rick D’Amato. “It was in the middle of this residential neighborhood. Everybody could walk there. It was very ingrained into who they were as a community.”

The site for the new library, around the corner from the old library, was once a historic theater, but it had gone through many iterations. It soon became clear that the community felt strong ties to the site and saw cultural and historic significance where others didn’t. Tensions ran high in early planning sessions. People in the neighborhood felt the city wasn’t listening to them.

D’Amato and the LPA design team launched an extensive outreach campaign to learn more about was really important to the community. D’Amato, who lives in Long Beach, spent months talking with residents and listening to the different perspectives. He led walking tours to explore the local architecture. He gave his personal phone number and email address to activists and visited them in their homes. He grew close to many of the neighbors.

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“I wanted them to feel protected because they hadn’t been in so long,” D‘Amato says. “I think the system had neglected them. I wanted to make them feel part of this process.”

The deeper the designers explored, the more they realized that people were attached to the library and the site, in different, unexpected ways. From the architecture to the stories of the people who owned and frequented the businesses, there were emotional connections to the old complex. At the same time, the community saw the library as an opportunity to create the type of community center they were seeing in other neighborhoods.

One element stood out more than others: People were passionate about saving the old theater’s decorative tower. It served no specific function, and the movie theater itself was long gone. But it was an important icon for the community.

“That tower was a symbol,” D’Amato says. “It marked almost the exact center of the neighborhood. It was a landmark and almost a beacon for the community.”

The city eventually brought in a historian to catalog different elements of the existing buildings, removing items that would later be displayed in the new library. “That was a direct result of the community,” D’Amato says. “I wouldn’t have known that this building had any sense of significance unless I had talked to these neighbors.”

As the process continued, D’Amato began to see a shift in the discussions. “When we started to show the neighborhood how we were going to integrate these elements, it was really remarkable the way the nature of the meetings started to change,” D’Amato says.

The ultimate design for the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library reflects the community’s wishes in several ways. Plans originally called for a traditional library pushed back from the street with parking in front. But the community wanted the library to be part of the urban street. Instead of two stories, the library was designed as one story to better accommodate the community and neighborhood services that became an important part of the facility. The single-story design also allowed for the inclusion of a community courtyard, which has become a hub for events and local activities.

The design highlights the art deco elements of the old neighborhood, while adding a modern, uplifting new building to the street. And the old tower is prominently displayed, reimagined as a spire atop the building.

“For me it was probably one of my most rewarding projects of my career,” D’Amato says, “and it was because of that engagement and special relationship with the community.”