Thursday, May 29, 2014

On the Road at the Library - Seattle

I'm heading to Seattle this afternoon on a trip that will be dominated by golf and baseball, and I doubt it will afford me any time to read. Of course I will have my books with me, but reading doesn't seem to be in the cards.

In light of the destination, I thought it was time for my second "On the Road at the Library" post, this time in Seattle, about my visit to their Central branch. The difference between Seattle and my previous library visit in Philadelphia is incredible; the two are night and day.

Philadelphia's central branch is a classic stone structure from 1927, while Seattle's is a shiny modern glass and steel building opened in 2004. To say the Central Library in Seattle is a unique building would be a massive understatement. Designed by architects Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the building reminds me of Rubik's Magic, the far less successful sequel to the Rubik's Cube.

The walls fold and bend at seemingly random points, and from the outside, it's almost hard to visualize that there is an actual usable space inside. The designers sought to get away from the stuffy, uninviting atmosphere of many libraries, and it would appear they succeeded; it is unlike any library I've ever been to. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a large, glass atrium with a coffee shop, a gift shop, and scores of computers. As an aside, Seattle's Central branch features 400 computers, compared with Philadelphia's 120 computers, system-wide

The non-fiction collection begins on the 10th of 11 stories, and spirals down four floors through a series of ramps. Instead of breaking up the collection as would be seen in most libraries, be it through different rooms or different floors, here, floors seven through ten seem to meld into each other and present you with a long corridor of books. Naturally I compare this to Calgary's central branch, where half of one's research time can be spent waiting for the elevator to get from floor to floor.

The open concept is quite pleasing to the eye, and the abundance of natural light makes for quite a comforting environment. I did find some spaces to be, almost cramped, with low headroom; usually where the ramp switchbacks. And there is a lot of uneven flooring, which could be problematic for people with mobility issues, or even the day to day operation of the library.

One thing that surprised me about their collection, was the number of different newspapers they provided their customers. There were newspapers from almost every urban centre in the US; the Sacramento Bee, the Orlando Sentinel, the Denver Post. They'd all obviously arrived by mail and as a result they were all 5 or 6 days old.

I couldn't believe how much space was dedicated to housing these old newspapers, and how much staff time must be spent managing such an old-fashioned collection. While I understand the appeal of reading newspapers form other cities (to practice my Portuguese, I read the Rio de Janeiro Metro almost every day), in this age of computers there are so many better ways to provide people with this. It's especially surprising coming from such a modern library that boasts so many technological amenities.

Also of note is because of where the building is situated in hilly downtown Seattle, the entrance on 5th Avenue, is one floor above the entrance on 4th Avenue. The lower level houses the book return area and an amphitheater, while the upper foyer is the one mentioned above with the fiction collection and coffee shop. And below those levels is a public parking garage, something that for some reason, really, really surprises me.

I eagerly anticipate the unveiling of Calgary's new central branch sometime this summer, and I can only hope for a building as nice as this. Although I could do without a lot of the, what I can only describe as "unique for the sake of being unique." But the open concept, natural light, innovative architecture, and modern amenities, would be welcome improvement over Calgary's current downtown library, which is the exact opposite of these things.

No comments:

Post a Comment