In Logan, bold reopening of an old library may soon show other branches the future

The doors are locked at Logan Library in North Philadelphia. Starting last summer, would-be patrons were turned away, too. From the outside, the 1918 edifice appears as stoic and stately as ever, while a major transformation has been underway inside.

It might be worth the wait.

The remaking of Logan is part of the Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative, a project financed by a $25-million grant from the William Penn Foundation that will bring a brand-new look to five neighborhood libraries throughout the city.

On track to reopen this fall, Logan Library is being molded into a prototype for how to design libraries in Philadelphia for years to come. The team behind Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative, a $500 million investment in Philadelphia’s parks, rec centers, and libraries will no doubt be keeping a close eye on the 21st Century Libraries.

PlanPhilly previewed the ongoing renovations to modernize the interior of the timeless brick building — one of several neighborhood libraries built with money from Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Monolithic and imposing desks have been removed, while cafe-style counters and circular tables — designed to encourage interactions among patrons — are being moved in. Most of the bookcases, stacked with collection that will be more than 50 percent new, will not stretch higher than the height of a middle-schooler.

Removing some of Logan’s traditional features will also serve to make the library branch exceedingly accessible. A new wheelchair-friendly ramp and elevator, along with the adjustment of moving the librarians’ offices downstairs, will facilitate an open floor plan that’s visible from most any vantage.

The library lexicon is changing as well: There will be no sign for a circulation desk. Instead, there will be a place for “customer service.” The reference desk will simply be labeled with question marks.

All these alterations reflect a sea-change in how experts now approach library design. “For decades, libraries were very static,” says James Keller, an architect at J R Keller and author of Designing Space for Children and Teens in Libraries and Public Spaces. “In modern libraries, things that might be suitable or appropriate or dynamic or forward-thinking in one year, may evolve in the period of a couple years,” says Keller. “Making the design [of libraries] reasonably adaptable is important.”

Keller has had a front-row seat to the emergence of new paradigms of thought on library design over the last 20 years—design shifts  that will increasingly inform how Philadelphia’s fleet of 54 public libraries get revamped in the future, whether that’s through Rebuild or the Free Library’s ongoing capital allowance for maintenance and reconstruction. Keller was the lead architect for each of the five branches being overhauled through the 21st Century Libraries Initiative.

 Rendering of Logan Library's new children's section (Courtesy of J R Keller)

While Logan’s patrons have to wait a little longer, South Philadelphia Library has been open for a year and previews many of the same design principles. The early returns at the South Philly branch are impressive. More than 14,000 people have attended programs held inside the library in its first year. That’s an 84 percent increase in attendance compared to 2013, the last year measured prior to the renovations. Overall usage has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the number of reference questions has only modestly increased, suggesting Keller successfully imbued the modernized space with an intuitive design.

“Having a really open floor plan not only provides a welcoming aesthetic, it’s also an important safety feature — staff now have sight lines wherever they look,” says Tiffany Nardella, special projects manager at the Free Library. Further, the openness  encourages librarians to move throughout the space. “The librarians can now see the patrons if they look like they’re in need of help.”

South Philadelphia, like each of the five branches that are part of the 21st Century grant, features a self-checkout for books and security with radio frequency identification (RFID).  “In our old system, if you walked through the wands, whether or not an item was checked out, the alarm would go off,” says Lynn Williamson, chief of neighborhood libraries. With the RFID, it won’t go off anymore if it’s been checked out.

A lot of the new design was not only based on best practices across the country and world, but also patron feedback. For example, Logan is equipped with glass-enclosed reading rooms that are both highly visible — keeping with the theme of open space — and private. Research undertaken by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative on the Free Library system identified the need for separate reading rooms beyond a central, public foyer.

According to Williamson, the last major building campaign by the Free Library was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Of course, this was a pre-recession period of relative economic stability for Philadelphia, well before former Mayor Michael Nutter tried to (unsuccessfully) close 11 branches in 2009. Although Rebuild doesn’t figure to provide many neighborhood libraries with quite as extensive renovations as the 21st Century libraries entailed, the insight gleaned from South Philadelphia — and soon, the other four — should prove invaluable.

“I think the benefit of having South Philadelphia open with such a large gap [between the other openings, although it wasn’t intentional, is that we could see where mistakes could be prevented going forward,” says Nardella. “Once the furniture arrives, it’s a rapid turnaround, and once you open, you’re on fire.”

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