May 20, 2004

College libraries cater to widening needs

  • Changing technology and new amenities are driving design
    Thomas Hacker Architects

    Penrose Memorial Library
    Photos by Timothy Hursley
    Technological needs and student amenities are exerting a strong influence on library architecture. Whitman College’s $12.4 million renovation and expansion of Penrose Memorial Library included a new reading room, cafe, wireless Internet access and 600 Internet ports.

    Academic libraries today are a complex interweaving of traditional library services and ever-developing technological possibilities, including different forms of electronic data for journals, both subscription/Web-based and CDs.

    The exciting developments in electronic technologies are having a profound effect on information exchange and communication. They are also having a strong influence on the architecture of the library, as there is an increasing need for flexibility and the need to provide additional services to the students.

    With many research sources online and student access available in the dormitories, the campus library is becoming more of a social space, creating demand for large reading rooms, various sized group study rooms, even cafes and other student services.

    Penrose Memorial Library’s main space sits behind a wall of windows, overlooking Whitman College’s central gathering area.

    These spaces create an arena for students to expand on classroom discussions in a less-formal learning environment with their teachers and fellow students. This instills a sense of community and connection, encouraging students to relate their academic learning to larger personal and even global questions.

    More flexibility

    Wireless technologies greatly reduce the amount of cabling necessary and allow for needed flexibility. In academic libraries, the shift to wireless is often driven by large assembly spaces, and initiated by or receiving support from audiovisual and information technology departments.

    Library for the people
    Conceived as a light-filled room for the community, the new Woodstock Library, designed by Thomas Hacker Architects, occupies a prominent commercial corner in a southeast Portland neighborhood.
    The goal in designing this new 7,500-square-foot Multnomah County branch library was to create a feeling of openness and availability — an airy pavilion where the focus is on books and people. The building is detailed and sized to create a sense of loft inside, yet does not overpower the residential scale of the surrounding neighborhood.
    Under the shelter of an enveloping roof, a single large room — almost an extension of the street — provides a place for reading, working and meeting.
    The room’s floor is level with the sidewalk, without the formal base or plinth that often lifts a public edifice, symbolically and literally, above the life of the city. This reinforces the library’s role as a constituent of the community’s daily life, rather than as a removed temple of knowledge.
    The welcoming corner entry emphasizes access and availability and leads library patrons in to the main reading room, which is dedicated to the library collection, reading areas and information desks.
    The library was awarded a 2000 Portland General Electric EarthSmart Award. — Kacey Jurgens

    Many academic libraries also incorporate raised-floor access. Fully accessible and flexible raised-floor systems work very well in libraries because you don't have to zone off spaces. There is easy flexibility with power, data, heating and cooling zones. They also allow you to use the thermal mass of the building to reduce heating and cooling costs, and there is more “give” than with a concrete floor, important for user comfort.

    The distribution of power and data wiring and the layout of library shelving and furnishings must be flexible to respond to changes in technology and service philosophy.

    Data and phone access can vary from placing individual floor or wall boxes at tables to having the tables themselves carry wire-management systems and equipment. Such strategies allow the future installation of computers to be as easy as possible and require minimum modifications. This approach can provide the library with maximum flexibility into the future.

    Library services have changed as well — today's reference librarians are no longer restricted to desks, but have increased mobility and serve as academic support, answering questions about digital media and assisting students on many different levels.

    Penrose Memorial Library

    The Penrose Memorial Library at Whitman College in Walla Walla was originally built in 1957 in a central axial position on the academic quadrangle. A recent renovation and expansion project allowed for design improvements, much-needed technology upgrades, an increase in student seating and growth of the collections.

    A ‘deceptively simple’ design
    Today’s public library is no longer viewed as simply a repository of books but as an information center and community meeting room.
    The idea behind the design of the Beaverton (Ore.) City Library, by Thomas Hacker Architects, is deceptively simple: large central open spaces on both ground and upper floors are circumscribed on three sides by more closed architectural elements.
    These masonry elements contain smaller and more specific library support spaces, including areas for technical and service use, library staff and smaller public rooms. The fourth side of the square plan is completely open to the south, becoming the main entrance facing the parks and the busy public market.
    The library is designed around a significant public room, constructed of an “orchard” of graceful wooden columns arching upward into a wooden lattice of roof framing, which architecturally invokes the town’s nickname of the City of Trees.
    Sustainable design aspects include extensive natural daylighting and electrical and mechanical systems designed to emphasize energy efficiency and minimize long-term operating costs. — Kacey Jurgens

    Additions in the 1970s improved collections storage but did little in terms of design — the front door was turned away from the center of campus, and the main reading room became buried within the building.

    The design for the library repairs the campus fabric and restores the intentions set forth by the original campus master plan by creating an open and inviting facade to the college's central gathering area, Ankeny Field.

    The design transforms the front facade of the library by creating a main entrance directly off the academic quad, with a two-story atrium space connected to a new main reading room.

    The old reading room was converted to collections storage, incorporating compact shelving to maximize storage space and house materials not frequently accessed.

    The new reading room opens up views to historic Memorial Hall. With a fireplace, wood paneling and soft seating, the room also serves as an inviting space for receptions and special events.

    The main library area sits behind a wall of windows, looking out on the expansive green of Ankeny Field.

    Respecting the existing campus context, the south end of the addition is built of brick with a palette of materials that complements Memorial Hall and other historic buildings at Whitman. Both the new entrance on the quad and the open character of the addition help to refocus the library as the actual and symbolic heart of the campus.

    Penrose now has computers on all four floors. Students can check out laptops and take advantage of wireless Internet access or one of over 600 Internet ports.

    Supplementing the college's own large library collection, Whitman is a member of the Orbis Cascade Alliance, a consortium of over 26 colleges and universities, providing students access to over 22 million volumes through the Summit catalog. The library also has an expansive collection of DVD and VHS movies.

    Kacey Jurgens is a principal at Thomas Hacker Architects, and she has served as library specialist on more than two dozen of the firm's public and academic library projects.

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