Redefining the library for today’s needs

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The Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library & Learning Center isn't just for books

The word "library" brings to mind shelves and shelves of dusty books, with several stray computers off to the side and a tweedy, bespectacled librarian overseeing it all. In 2015, however, the majority of the world's books are available for download on mobile devices, via Google Books, Project Gutenberg, or some other repository waving the banner of free and open access.

How can a bricks-and-mortar institution like a library survive?

A first step is to expand beyond the written word and focus on learning, which is far more basic than even books to the whole enterprise. Many libraries have already done this by creating media centers and beefing up their audio-book offerings. Secondly, libraries must serve the community in more ways than one: Find out what your neighbors feel is essential to a library experience and make those things accessible and convenient.

These are the guiding principles of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library & Learning Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, the recipient of a 2015 AIA/American Library Association Library Building Award and part of the vanguard of libraries that are repositioning themselves to emphasize interactivity, hands-on education, and life skills.

Teach your children well

The project was the brainchild of Bobby Roberts, the director of the Central Arkansas Library System and a visionary in developing the right library for the right area.

"Over the years we've designed several of his libraries," said Reese Rowland, FAIA, a principal at Little Rock-based Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects and lead on the library project, "and he really understands how the work can transform a neighborhood, how it can really be a visual catalyst for change."

The library was designed to be heavily modifiable; these great steps can also be used as an auditorium or a theater where the children put on plays.

Change was a necessity in Little Rock; the Children's Library was built in part to bridge a longtime city divide created by a 40-year-old interstate highway that split the city in two—a scenario that has played out in dozens of U.S. cities and a boundary that has come to represent socioeconomic imbalance in Pulaski County’s largest city. In fact, that very border was featured prominently in a 1994 HBO documentary on street gangs.

"We acquired six acres of rolling, tree-filled land that had been abandoned," Rowland added. "So we didn't have to take anybody's land, and we used the remnants of a terrible interstate decision and made something really positive out of it."

Turn the page (and add a kitchen)

In preparation for designing the library, a charrette was held with a group of city kids. When asked what they'd want in terms of programs, one response stood out among the rest: "Teach us how to feed ourselves."

For children who'd gone their whole young lives with inconsistent or unavailable meals, the knowledge of how to buy food, clip coupons, or even heat up soup was paramount. So a teaching kitchen was added to the design, along with a greenhouse and several gardens.

"The kitchen is the size of two full home kitchens, open enough to bring in 20 kids at a time," Rowland said. "The idea is to grow in the garden or the greenhouse, harvest those items, and show the kids how to prepare them."

Beyond those services, one of the project's ambitions was to achieve timelessness. Slapping stickers of Disney characters on the walls would date the building, assigning it to a certain period in a child's life rather than serving as an adaptable space. Rowland and his team produced a structure that resembled an old barn—a large area that could be programmed and reprogrammed.

"Like a barn, it holds many things over the years," Rowland said. "The volume changes over the years, but it's a container. And this is a container of information."

"We used the remnants of a terrible interstate decision and made something really positive out of it." Reese Rowland, FAIA

The barn idea plays out in two other ways: It’s a familiar sort of space where, even if you didn’t grow up on a farm, you instinctively understand the typology. Secondly, what would have been clapboard on a barn has been replaced by generous windows that bathe the interior with even, natural light.

"Our design focuses on giant windows, open spaces, and a friendly environment," said Sarah McClure, manager of the library. "It's designed to stand the test of time."

So far, all their hard work is paying off: Almost 100,000 people came through the library's doors in 2014 to take part in over 800 programs designed for adults and children alike.

"People visiting from different states are wowed by what we have to offer," McClure said, noting that the library is emerging as both a local community anchor and an important regional resource.

"Projects like these are like children," Rowland said. "You nurture them and then you let them stand on their own."

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.

Image credits

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Timothy Hursley

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