Philadelphia Free Library builds new public rooms, new modern mission

More than 40,000 square feet of new, technology-savvy public space do not hold books, but aim to promote civic engagement as the Philadelphia Free Library refines its mission.

The renovation at the Parkway Central Library includes staff space on the upper floor, two floors of multi-purpose common space, and on the lowermost level, shelves and climate-controlled storage. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The renovation at the Parkway Central Library includes staff space on the upper floor, two floors of multi-purpose common space, and on the lowermost level, shelves and climate-controlled storage. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Next week, the Free Library of Philadelphia will cut the ribbon on 41,000 square feet of new public spaces inside the Central Parkway branch.

It is the culmination of 13 years of planning.

The expansion of the Library includes a new teen center with video games; a Manga animation collection, and young adult novels; a small business resource center with powerful wifi and onsite consultants; and 7,200 square feet of undetermined public space with chairs, tables, power outlets, and meeting rooms to be used however one wishes.

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“What we’re hoping to accomplish is to allow the public to find a safe space, a safe zone to have conversations that can be difficult to have,” said Free Library president Siobhan Reardon. “Let this be the space that engages a more civil society. That is the essence of it.”

Conspicuously absent are books. The new public spaces were carved out of the back of the library that had housed the stacks: six levels of shelving that held about 850,000 books. Those shelves were not browsable – you had to request a book and it would be retrieved by staff.

Reardon said that happened so infrequently that it made more sense to store them off-site – the books are still accessible, albeit with a 24-hour delay – and transform the shelving into public spaces.

The idea came out of a much more ambitious rebuild of the Central library branch, which would have expanded its footprint northward with a grand, glass atrium. Reardon came on board in 2008 and realized that plan would not work for several reasons. A big one was that it would not have addressed the changing role of libraries in a modern society.

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The renovation is a reimagining of the job of a library. No longer primarily a dedicated place for quiet study, Reardon said, the modern library needs to be reactive to civic engagement and to the different ways people learn — including visual, multimedia, and interactive ways of learning.

“The business and teen spaces are designed to be noisy, connected learning spaces. Up on the second floor, you still have a quiet typical traditional library,” she said. “For some people this change is a good one; for others, the sense of a quiet sanctuary – that’s still necessary for those people.”

Library building lent itself to renovation

President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia Siobhan Reardon stands in the Heim Center for Cultural and Civic Engagement, part of a massive renovation of the Parkway Central Library. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Reardon is not alone in reassessing a library’s purpose. She was fortunate, however, when she saw that her central building would allow relatively easy alterations. The stacks were an almost free-standing storage system, six stories tall, anchored inside a large cavern.

“The stack system was not integral to the building, unlike the New York Public Library where literally the stacks held up the Rose Reading Room,” she said. “That was not the case here. The stack system was built, essentially, as an Erector set. It was too easy. We just seized a giant opportunity.”

Easy, but not cheap. The renovation cost $35.8 million. New access points were dug through concrete walls from the library’s lobby. Aesthetically, the new spaces nearly seamlessly connect with the old: Pink terrazzo granite was salvaged from the floor of the old stacks and used to make new staircases to the matching lobby.

Before the renovation, a four-story section of Parkway Central that once housed the library’s stacks, was completely gutted. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The wagon-wheel chandeliers are not exact replicas of those in the original part of the building, but it would take a sharp eye to notice the difference.

When Reardon took the job 10 years ago, a third of the building was publicly accessible, and the rest was dedicated to stacks, mechanicals, and administration. With the renovations, that ratio has flipped, with two-thirds of the building accessible to the public.

An official ribbon cutting is scheduled for Wednesday, and the public is invited to an open house April 12.

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