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Nationwide library review provides inspiring facilities roadmap

By Pamela Nyberg Kiesner, Director, Bellingham Public Library

A library is not just a building that holds books (though, true, that can be magical!). It is a space that serves and advances the community.

That is a key message from a study recently commissioned by our library neighbors to the south at the Sno-Isle Libraries, serving Snohomish and Island counties.

Public Library Facilities for the Future,” a nationwide review by Margaret Sullivan Studio, paints an exciting and inspiring future for public libraries. It was commissioned by Sno-Isle Libraries to help its leaders envision and plan facilities over the next decade, and it provides timely and relevant ideas for our own community’s library needs.

A changing mindset

The study notes that a changing mindset drives contemporary libraries, even as they carry forward traditional values.

“21st century public libraries are necessary for the same reason that public libraries were created in the 19th and 20th centuries: to provide platforms for social equity, income equality, social cohesion and pathways to economic success and opportunity,” the study states. “Libraries are not only providing different services to customers, but customers’ needs and expectations are also changing, forcing the library’s physical spaces to support a variety of activities and programs unimagined even ten years ago.”

It goes on to describe contemporary needs for learning and connecting: “Libraries are learning institutions and how learning occurs is being re-defined. Therefore, spaces in public libraries need to be re-designed to support this variety of learning experiences, including spaces for social learning, active learning and collaborative learning.”

“Buildings should be designed to accommodate the variety of programming the library is doing now and in the unforeseen programming future. The library design should enable librarians to be innovative, flexible and adaptable to provide programs and activities the community would enjoy. The building should not hinder this potential.”

The study notes that “key spaces” are vital to modern libraries as they break free of simply being repositories of materials. Some key spaces include: welcoming spaces and dedicated spaces for browsing materials in a store-like atmosphere; computer labs and tech arts labs dedicated to digital arts and equipped with the latest technology; multipurpose rooms for meetings, quiet study, group study and more; vibrant cafés and bookstores, maker spaces for messy projects and those requiring special equipment; phone rooms designed for telephone conversations and video conferencing; gallery and performance spaces; and many other types of spaces.

The study describes specific examples of ways libraries across the country are carrying out these ideas, meeting the unique needs of their communities with innovative, accessible, customer-oriented facilities and services.

Planning for our future

Public Library Facilities for the Future,” and its focus on innovative library facilities and services, provides timely inspiration as the Bellingham City Council deliberates the 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update.

City officials are weighing our community’s needs for capital facilities – streets, fire stations, water and sewer systems and others – as part of the 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update. The draft plan reiterates our library’s facility needs among the many other needs it identifies.

Included in the draft plan is the goal of replacing or expanding the Central Library, the 65-year-old hub of the Bellingham Public Library system, to serve Bellingham and its projected growth. This long-standing need is well-documented in numerous adopted plans during the past decade.

The Central Library no longer serves our community well. It now supports more than double the population it was originally intended to serve, and falls far short of meeting city goals of ensuring efficient, cost-effective, technologically innovative facilities.

The draft update also calls for developing plans for additional library services in the north part of Bellingham, along with seismic and other improvements to the Fairhaven Branch Library, and continued collaboration with the Whatcom County Library System and other partners.

Bellingham has many priority capital needs and library facilities is among them. We join City officials in encouraging community members to weigh in on these needs during City Council deliberations on the draft 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update this summer and fall.

An inspiring roadmap

As our community’s conversation about library facilities continues, we’ll be looking to library professionals and communities across the state and nation for ideas and inspiration. And we’ll be watching our neighbors at Sno-Isle Libraries to see what innovative directions they take with “Public Library Facilities for the Future” as their roadmap.

Pamela Nyberg Kiesner is the Director of the Bellingham Public Library and Chair of the Library Council of Washington.