"[Memphis/Shelby County Public Library's] motto is 'serving the public's need to know,' " explains Frank Ricks, principal, Looney Ricks Kiss, Memphis, TN. And with an adage like that, it's fitting that the library's new five-story facility was designed not only to serve staff, but to serve the city of Memphis. "They wanted it to express a sense of permanence and civic monumentality," Ricks says.
Touring approximately 10 major public libraries throughout the United States and Canada for design do’s-and-don’ts, Looney Ricks Kiss staff watched as library personnel reacted to what they observed. “They see things through their lenses or filters as people who are not architects. We saw lots of examples where design, for the sake of design, got in the way of the operational aspects of the library – but that’s where we excelled. We did both. We solved the functional aspects with good design,” says Ricks.
From these tours, a list of nine objectives was formed and constantly used for benchmarking. It listed items such as: Safety and security of people and materials are to be of paramount consideration; all areas of the library are to be user-friendly via proper signage, service desk placement, lighting, and choice of materials and colors; and interior sight lines should provide visibility to public areas from staff public service desks. “We were always checking ourselves against those nine objectives; you can see how the building is very much a response to those,” he adds.
Ricks admits that one of the hardest things about the 330,000-square-foot project was overcoming the pre-conceived idea of a “traditional library.” When Memphis/Shelby staff explained that the idea of the central library had changed drastically, the team realized that a “dark furniture and green reading lamps” design probably wasn’t what their clients were envisioning. With libraries once chaining books down to prevent theft, the vision for this library was more of a mixture: part community center, part Internet café, part public forum. “People have a lot of options right now in terms of where they get their materials: bookstores, at home on the Internet. [The library is] almost a retail-type of environment, competing for people’s time and attention. The thing we heard most frequently was that the space needed to be welcoming,” explains Rebecca Courtney, associate principal, Interiors, Looney Ricks Kiss. With visitors ranging in age and accessibility, “No one should feel excluded or that they are not welcome to come in and spend time,” emphasizes Courtney.
With the Memphis/Shelby team suggesting that the architects think about library traffic in the same way they’d consider airport traffic, the facility was designed to minimize the need for users to ask for directions – cutting down on the amount of time library staff devotes to “traffic control.” With a strong emphasis on wayfinding, features were planned to be as obvious as possible so visitors could easily find their way from the moment they pulled into the parking lot. Floors were stacked with the busiest, most in-and-out traffic (for video rentals, current fiction selections, a used bookstore, public meeting spaces, and a café) on the first floor; moving upward, floors become progressively quieter.
With flexibility and adaptability on the list of objectives, the library was intentionally designed to accommodate forthcoming technology, the growth of materials collections, and interior reconfiguration – all while maintaining a consistent, unvarying appearance. With the previous facility being renovated in parts over time, “you could tell that it was done sort of piecemeal without an overriding concept,” says Courtney.
Public art is a feature unique to the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library. “Early on, we identified areas we thought could benefit from an art enhancement vs. an artist enhancement. It wasn’t intended to be ‘art in public places,’ but to be public art ... meaning it had a function and it was integrated into the architecture,” explains Courtney. Public art was incorporated into the atrium, foyer floor, and children’s department, as well as several other locations throughout the building. “It really provides the finishing touches to the building,” explains Sallie Johnson, deputy director, Memphis/Shelby County Public Library.
One-of-a-kind not only in public art, Memphis/Shelby is the only public library in the country to house television and radio broadcasting stations. For this reason, security and accessibility were definite design considerations; certain spaces needed to provide 24/7 access for volunteers running the stations, while other parts of the library needed to remain closed to the public.
The design of the library also had to accommodate an internal transportation and distribution system. With the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library serving as the central location in the hub-and-spoke system of 22 other branch libraries scattered around Memphis, it supplies materials overnight upon request. “This definitely created a unique twist that we had to accommodate in the design,” says Ricks.
How are the citizens of Memphis adjusting to their new window to the world? “They love it. We estimated that the use of the building would double; that’s pretty much held true,” says Johnson.
And if figures are any indication – circulation up 53 percent, cardholders increasing 339 percent, and visitors now totaling 80,000 each month – Memphis/Shelby County Public Library patrons will only continue to be impressed by their updated community venue.
Leah B. Garris (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editorial coordinator at Buildings magazine.