Open to Learning | Design Institute Columbus Design Challenges

Ohio’s Columbus Metropolitan Library hosted a deep dive into design in a setting that spoke volumes.

ljx170101webdicharlestonslugOhio’s Columbus Metropolitan Library hosted a deep dive into design in a setting that spoke volumes

LJ’s Design Institute: Columbus broke with tradition by hosting the day’s convening not in a separate auditorium or event space away from patrons but right on the floor of the newly renovated Columbus Metropolitan Library’s (CML) reading room—surrounded by the energy of a busy urban public library. The new wall of windows facing the adjacent topiary park not only added an inspiring backdrop to the speakers, it exemplified many of the common themes of modern library design and of the day’s discussions—openness, transparency, natural light, and the connection to outdoor space, among them. The curious patrons who stopped by to observe without intruding illustrated the truth of one observation made by Alison Circle, chief customer experience officer for CML, during the program: “The public loves to see activity happen.”

A WINDOW ON THE FUTURE. Top row, l.–r.: The Columbus Metropolitan Library’s (CML) own renovation provided an inspiring example, pairing a classic façade with a contemporary rear entrance focusing on natural light. Middle row: The DI HQ Reading Room. Bottom row, l.–r.: CML CEO Pat Losinski and LJ’s Rebecca T. Miller welcomed attendees, who would later sign up for one of five design challenges. Photos by Kevin Henegan

Traditional to trendy

In the day’s first panel, CML CEO Patrick Losinski led a discussion of trends in library design and renovating the buildings of previous eras in particular.

Christine Verbitzki, principal, GUND Partnership, called for library renovations to “undo the book bunker” and follow the retail model of putting staple items in the back to pull patrons through the space. Adding a café can also lengthen the experience, she said, as can a family privacy room, and turning desks into movable furniture can make the users’ relationship with librarians feel less ­transactional.

Toby Olsen, library design team leader, OPN Architects, cited large flexible lobbies, cafés, outdoor programming plazas, and auditoriums as trends, all driven by the rise of the library as town hub. Olsen urged scaling down the desk, removing velvet ropes and turnstiles and other barriers to free movement through the space; adding electronic displays; and placing a new emphasis on views and vistas, which in turn suggests lower shelves and wider aisles to provide better lines of sight and access to daylight.

Stephanie Shook, head of interiors, HBM Architects, cited a trend often overlooked because it sits outside the building proper: drive-up services, she said, are so popular that they can exceed the circulation of whole branches in some systems with which HBM has worked. For those that do come inside, Shook pointed to a rise in areas that can be sectioned off and used after hours without opening the whole library, for special events, and making quiet reading spaces do double duty.

LEADIN HERE. Top row, l.–r.: Reps from vendor sponsors Worden and Tech Logic talked the talk. Middle row, l.–r.: Challenge participants brainstormed design solutions; architects (l.–r.) Toby Olsen from OPN Architects, Stephanie Shook from HBM Architects, and Kevin Montgomery from krM Architecture discussed trends. Bottom row, l.–r.: CML’s Alison Circle (l.) and Grimm + Parker’s Julia Crawford held court during the “Moving from Collections to Connections” panel, which also featured (l.–r.) HBM’s Kevin Kennedy, OPN’s Mindy Sorg, and GUND Partnership’s Christine Verbitzki. Photos by Kevin Henegan

Kevin Montgomery, partner, krM Architecture, cited the now-common mantra of shifting from archives to people spaces and echoed the importance of daylighting. He called for transparency—being able to see in and through library spaces—but also for a hierarchy of privacy built in to the design. To connect the new building to the library’s history and previous identity, he suggested repurposing architectural elements such as using the old floor as the ceiling or old doors as privacy walls.

Julia Crawford, director of interior design, Grimm + Parker, also cited the need for a balance between transparency and privacy—“put the people on display,” she said, but also establish a “cocoon-like environment” for children and adults alike. Another balance to strike, said Crawford, is with technology: tech is a trend but, in areas where patrons can afford their own devices, so is tech saturation. People want to be able to get away from it. The solution? Concentrate tech in certain areas of the library. Taking the goal of getting away to the next level, Richard Kong, director of the Skokie Public Library, IL, and a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker, asked the panel how to create a calming library. Suggestions included controllable LED lighting, glass enclosures, solid acoustics, color scheme, texture, fireplaces, water features, green (living) walls, aquariums, and moving bubble art.

Collections to connections

After breaking out to address real-world design challenges from attending libraries looking to build or renovate (see p. 42), the group assembled to discuss “Moving from Collections to Connections,” moderated by the author.

Circle oriented the audience to the concept by starting with what CML’s own customers think of when they think of the library in the past—books—versus now—community. Then architects on the panel shared their own takes on the concept. Kevin Kennedy, principal, HBM Architects, sees it less as a battle than a balance between collection and services, a concept that saw widespread consensus. The group also emphasized the importance of basing the shift on local customer needs rather than national trends. Erin Jennings, associate, krM Architecture, urged librarians to look at their demographics and who they are serving over time. Mindy Sorg, associate, OPN Architects, added into the mix that they should ask what differentiates their library. Asking what would happen if we didn’t exist, said Sorg, helps libraries envision their strengths and opportunities. Circle agreed, saying it was important that those embarking on a design project “under­stand who they are as a library”—which may, she said, involve some soul-searching.

LEADIN GOES HERE Attendees had the opportunity to pose questions to the experts, including OPN’s Bradd Brown (l.) and Grimm + Parker’s Antonio Rebelo (r.). Photos by Kevin Henegan

To determine what those concrete customer needs are, Jennings suggested working with everyone in the beginning of the design process to engage them in visioning exercises. However, conscious input alone may not tell the whole story: Crawford urged letting real-world usage inform the process—“Let people do what they want, then observe to find needs”—and Sorg agreed. “Heat mapping shows real use versus assumed use. People can go anywhere in the library; watch what they do.” Verbitzki added that she had in the past hired an anthropologist to study library use because observation is more honest than self-reporting.

Involving staff as well as community members in the design process is crucial for staff buy-in, the panel concurred. To convince staff to buy in to reducing collections—or even holding them constant while space expands—tell the story of increased circulation, Circle suggested, and, even better, provide supporting materials that make it easy for staff to tell the library story to ­customers.

Because responding to customers’ needs can leave libraries perennially struggling to catch up, panelists also cited places outside of libraries and their users to look for ideas. Crawford advised taking cues from health care facilities, where roving nursing stations can inspire reference stations, and retail, while Kennedy looked to museums—particularly for interactive offerings—and research.

The panel trod well-established ground in defining what makes a modern library, calling for connections between inside and out; welcoming buildings that show the public what’s going on within; and combined-use spaces defined by the activities they host with lightweight, mobile furniture. Conversely, they spoke of the dangers of a space so flexible it makes no statement at all. Circle urged a balance between flexibility and “dramatic, distinguishing” features, and the panel suggested using lighting and the few fixed points to add drama while remaining adaptable and future-proof.

Attendees rounded off the day with speed sessions in which they could present their own particular design challenges and seek input from the participating architects and product vendors in real-time.

Meredith Schwartz is Executive Editor, LJ. Thanks to John Tetzloff, Library Manager, Columbus Metropolitan Library, and Summer Sherman, Manager, South High Branch, CML

Design Challenges

Bexley Public Library  OH


THE CHALLENGE: With its last major renovation some 26 years in the rear-view mirror, the 42,000 square foot Bexley Public Library is looking to hit refresh. Originally built in 1929, it has many striking traditional elements valued by its suburban Columbus community, but it also has poor sight lines and too many walls—introduced over the years—inhibiting movement and future flexibility and ultimately limiting effective space deployment. One big opportunity, according to Director Rachel Rubin, is lots of cool space, which is, sadly, currently not maximized for public use.

THE BRAINSTORM: That “cool space” includes second-floor spots with promising views, including a sort of box seat onto a nearby sports complex. In a brainstorm led by GUND Partnership’s Christine Verbitzki, participants expressed excitement about pulling staff out of this area to create an indoor/outdoor space with a bird’s-eye view to enhance special events. A side benefit: helping to consolidate staff areas more strategically. Discussion revolved around staff space vs. public space, with an emphasis on collocating departments that do like work and finding a way to close the distance between the dock and the current circulation and collection development staff.

Otherwise, there was much consideration of stack height—bring it down to support sight lines—and collection size and location. Rubin liked the idea of more seats amid the stacks, so readers could settle in; she was encouraged to consider dividing the collection. “Don’t be afraid of splitting your stacks on separate floors,” one participant said, “as not everyone is using all types of books.” Another hot topic: parking—which is “tough at best,” according to Rubin. Think about what the relationship to parking is like for someone with a stroller or an elderly patron, one participant urged, adding, “I always think about empathy walking.”—Rebecca T. Miller

North Webster Community Library  IN

ARCHITECT:  krM Architecture

THE CHALLENGE: This lakeside library in northeast Indiana currently inhabits 10,000 square feet of space of the North Webster Community Center, sharing the building with the local YMCA, a senior center, the regional sewer district, and a massage spa, according to Director Helen Leinbach. The library would like to have a space of its own designed specifically for library activities. Missing pieces include study rooms, public meeting space, storage, and green areas, among others. This small library also must accommodate an annual influx of tourists, when library use can double. North Webster now has a chance to purchase adjacent property and build a 20,000 square foot library, as well as surrounding green space that could be a “central park” for the town.

THE BRAINSTORM: Led by krM’s Kevin Montgomery, attendees split into small groups and played with blocks representing different sections of the proposed library. Using a satellite image of the site, participants shifted the building to different areas on the map, noting the impact of their choices on access, parking, and contiguous parkland. Tough choices emerged between maximizing visibility from the busy street at the front of the property or opting for the more scenic back section of the property, where future land acquisition could provide stunning access to Lake Webster. Layout ideas encompassed providing outdoor programming in the park, situating public meeting space for after-hours access, and downsizing the projected collection to allow for greater programming and study space.—John Tetzloff

Skokie Public Library  IL


THE CHALLENGE: Skokie Public Library serves a diverse, suburban community of 65,000 residents just north of Chicago. The 133,000 square foot library was constructed in 1960 in an eye-catching, midcentury modern aesthetic, with floor-to-ceiling windows, abundant natural light, and courtyard views. Nevertheless, Director Richard Kong said that piecemeal updates have eroded many of the building’s best qualities, creating barriers and a “hodgepodge” of spaces that are ill-suited to evolving customer needs. A top priority for Skokie is expanded spaces for children and junior high school students. Other goals include eliminating towering institutional shelves and reducing the footprint of the staff area, which currently limits sight lines and impedes the best views of a central courtyard.

THE BRAINSTORM: Mindy Sorg and Toby Olsen of OPN Architects led three groups of attendees through a design exercise. Groups used a drawing of the existing library and cutouts representing spaces, service points, and sight lines to reimagine the floor plan. All the participants suggested that Skokie should shrink its collection to open up floor space, strategically remove and/or reduce the scale of existing service points, and relocate the staff work area away from the library’s center. Another idea entailed fewer distinct children’s services spaces (a programming room, craft room, and STEM lab); in their place, contributors envisioned a flexible, multipurpose area with mobile walls, which could adapt to the changing demands of programmers and their young customers.—Summer Sherman

South Burlington Community Library  VT

ARCHITECT:  Grimm + Parker

THE CHALLENGE: The South Burlington Community Library, housed in the high school, is finally getting its own space—the first two floors (33,000 square feet) of a four-story municipal building that is part of a new downtown. The city center has been in the works for over a decade, according to Director Jennifer Murray. She wants to get the community and staff excited about the library—but the cityscape doesn’t sit well with some residents in this rural state. The library team has a long wish list, including an expanded children’s area (to serve students from a nearby elementary school), meeting spaces, an auditorium, a kitchen, and collection and programming spaces that will draw millennials as well as older residents.

THE BRAINSTORM: Grimm + Parker’s Antonio Rebelo divided attendees into four groups, distributing puzzle pieces for each to create a model library. All agreed on shrinking the staff areas, since staff will be roving. Other suggestions included increased transparency, with kids/story time readily visible from outside; comfy chairs in the fiction section and two-person tables and lamps in nonfiction; meeting rooms of varying sizes, clustered to be less staff-intensive; and a multipurpose kitchen for programs for all ages. The trend toward self-service elicited suggestions for visible security cameras to monitor spaces, although Larry Neal, director of the Clinton-Macomb Public Library, MI, expressed concerns about “surveilling everyone.”

Grimm + Parker’s own design featured daylight and views on three sides, with stacks and staff areas moved to the core to allow for reading, studying, lounging, and interacting around the perimeter. It also consciously left the large auditorium, café, library store, and restrooms near the entry but outside the secure perimeter for easy access. Children were on the first floor, to enable better supervision from both the front desk and children’s staff room; adults and teens were on the second floor, with a digital lab and multimedia production room a hub for both. In a nod to the rural setting, red brick and redstone, similar to that once quarried locally, were set off against the external glass.—Francine Fialkoff

Union County Public Library  Monroe, NC


THE CHALLENGE: With the passage of a $10 million bond issue, Union County Public Library (UCPL) is replacing its current 2,700 square foot facility with a new 35,000 square foot building. UCPL serves a fast-growing suburban population of more than 200,000 people near Charlotte, NC, and the county has proposed that the new library share space with the local community college, South Piedmont. The focus in the new facility is on the customer experience, emphasizing excellent customer engagement, flexibility, and awe-inspiring design. Among the features the library hopes to include are a teen zone, a Maker space, an outdoor area, a teaching kitchen, meeting rooms, and ample staff space.

THE BRAINSTORM: Because the library is at such an early stage of planning, HBM architects started the group off with first steps. Attendees were divided into three smaller clusters to rotate through three different activities: answering questions designed to elicit feedback not only on physical space but about what staff (and community members) value in their library to drive the design process; a “mindbreaking” exercise, in which participants view images of various spaces and building styles, use Post-its to note likes and dislikes, and then group them by category; and designing a hypothetical site that incorporates not only radically scaled-up core services for the growing population but an experience that both “confirmed and exceeded” patrons’ expectations for the library. While the lack of real-world constraints from not having determined the final site meant design decisions could only go so far in applicability, grappling with the challenges of breaking down barriers—of sharing space and serving both audiences and of making special collections and materials transparent to the end user—gave participants plenty on which to chew. Their feedback gave the librarians ample content to take home to their stakeholders.—Meredith Schwartz

Challenge photos by Kevin Henegan




Grimm + Parker Architects Julia Crawford, Director of Interior Design; 240-223-0495 GUND Partnership Christine Verbitzki, Principal; 617-250-6874 HBM Architects Peter Bolek, Principal; 216-241-1100 krM Architecture Kevin Montgomery, Partner; 765-649-8477 OPN Architects Toby Olsen, Library Design Team Leader; 319-363-6018


Estey Chris Blankenship, Sales Manager; 800-251-8184, x318 Microsun Lamps Chris Glenn, Director of Business Development; 937-552-2442 Tech Logic Gary Kirk, President; 651-389-4912 Worden Linda Visscher, Sales Manager; 616-355-3069


Columbus Metropolitan Library Patrick Losinski, CEO; 614-849-1000
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