Alternative Library Spaces

Guest post by Sarah Steers, WPLLA Member-at-Large

A breathtaking, 19th Century brick-and-marble-and-granite behemoth certainly represents the idea of a library: formal, imposing, permanent.  But communities change.  Contemporary construction lines the main thoroughfares and financial resources don’t necessarily support breaking ground on a new stone library.  How can a city provide a bedrock location for much-needed (and wanted) library services in the face of such change?  By thinking out-of-the-box (and looking at big box stores), some cities have solved the crisis.

A former Wal-Mart  houses the largest single-floor library in the U.S. in McAllen, Texas.  While the original library worked for the city for over 60 years, eventually the community’s needs outgrew the space.  When McAllen Public Library’s New Main Branch opened in 2011, square footage tripled from 40,000 square feet to 123,000 square feet.  Patrons sip coffee in the café, use meeting rooms with state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment, and attend lectures in the auditorium.  Kids even play outside in the exterior children’s area.  Before-and-after pictures of the construction can be seen here; the library even won the 2012 Library Interior Design Award  from the International Interior Design Association.

The old Hickory Hollow Mall in Nashville, TN found new life in 2014 as Commons at the Crossing when the city repurposed it as a branch library, park, and community center.  The outdoor spaces spill over onto the grounds of the Ford Ice Center  next door, home to the Nashville Predators, the city’s NHL team.  The library space offers interactive digital projection services – arrows light the way to the location of a selected book and quickly morph when stepped on.  The library embraced other forms of tech, too, with 3-D printing demonstrations and laptops and iPads available for checkout.

Not to be outdone, Austin Community College bought and repurposed the Highland Mall  in Austin, TX.  The college’s administrative offices are located nearby, and employees noticed that the building was largely empty by the end of 2010.  When city residents voted to approve two bond propositions, the funds paved the way for the redevelopment of the mall into ACC’s Highland Campus, a truly innovative academic space.  Opened in 2014, the former J.C. Penney houses most of the campus, including the branch’s library [].  For pictures of the 170-foot skylight, cut out to give the building a more modern feel and let in natural light, click here.

Rather than be constrained by the conventional idea of what a formal library “should” look like, these communities took what they had available to them and simply made it work!

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