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Columnist
Libraries are not just about books anymore
By Sarah Long | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 2/8/2009 12:20 AM

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When industrialist Andrew Carnegie gave his last grant for library construction in 1913 there were 3,500 public libraries in the United States, nearly half of them funded by Carnegie's largesse.

In the late 1880s, when Carnegie first began to fund public library buildings, there weren't many rules for what the new buildings would look like or how they would function. But about 1908, Carnegie and his secretary and program administrator, James Bertram, became concerned that some plans they were seeing were not practical. He began sending a document, "Notes on Library Buildings," containing minimum standards for the new library building to communities winning a grant. One widely adopted suggestion was that the librarian's desk be at the center of the building, opposite the front door with the adult area on one side and the children's area on the other.

"Notes on Library Buildings" is now an antique document not only because it is over a hundred years old, but also because so much has changed about library service. In those days, it was all about books. Today it's about information in various formats. Learning today is frequently collaborative, requiring small meeting rooms for students, community groups, and others. Exhibit areas, coffee bars, gift shops, used book sale rooms, and of course, adequate parking are all requisites for adequately serving a library community today.

Conventional wisdom for starting a library construction project is to begin with a program statement. Richard Thompson, retired Director of the Wilmette Public Library and longtime consultant on new library buildings and additions, defines a program statement as "a document reflecting the different services a library hopes to provide its public and the level at which it hopes to provide these services, always over a specified period of time, typically not less than 20 years and ideally with an even longer time frame in mind. It typically consists of a number of components, reflecting the square footages required to accommodate the library's collections, the number of users anticipated to occupy the spaces at any given time, and staff needs. A library board may be inclined to tell a consultant, 'We want to build a library of X square feet.' But that really is the wrong place to start. My response is always, 'Why that figure? How do you know that that is enough space, or even if you need that much space?'"

After 25 years of library building consulting, Thompson says, "The most important thing a library can do is develop the library program first, not purchase a site, and then develop a building program only to discover that the new site is too small."

Richard C. McCarthy, AIA, principal with Burnidge Cassell Associates, an architectural firm, has had a lifelong interest in libraries. His interest intensified when he joined the board of trustees of the Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin about 20 years ago. McCarthy is strongly committed to green buildings and has become a LEEDS Accredited Professional. McCarthy is the architect for the Fox River Grove Public Library now under construction.

Randall Gibson, President of PSA Dewberry, a national architectural and engineering practice based in Chicago, says his firm has had projects with over 150 libraries for everything from space studies to brand new buildings. Gibson says today's trend is flexibility with a focus on service rather than on books or materials. Gibson currently serves as President of the Batavia Public Library Board. His firm designed the Glenview Public Library now under construction.

Listen to my podcast interviews with McCarthy and Gibson for more details on newest trends in library construction. Go to librarybeat.org.