Written by Tricia Bengel
I, like many of you I am sure, started my library working career as a Page. I was a Page in my hometown Carnegie library for several years during high school and college. During that time, in addition to being able to look at any book and guess the Dewey Number, I had really strong calf muscles from hustling up and down steep steps on marble floors. What we did have was very tall shelves, very uncomfortable wooden chairs and absolutely no books written just for teenagers beyond a few Judy Blume and some horrid Sweet Valley High. I still found the library magical and was constantly awe inspired by the stories it held.
After talking to two amazing Texas librarians and how they transformed their small, cramped libraries into awesome, light filed spaces with comfy chairs, where it is ok to have musical programs and there are dedicated spaces just for kids and teens, I was sad for my teenage self for just a minute. And then, I thought about all the kids like me, sort of geeky and book obsessed who are enjoying their spaces where there are librarians who want them to kick back, hang, and geek out on books.
On February 28, I had the opportunity to spend a delightful hour talking to Melinda Hodges, Director of the Buda Public Library and Jacki Gross, Director of the Seguin Library. Both of these women had the opportunity to reinvent their spaces completely in new locations. They shared with us the deficits of their old buildings (lack of space, lack of enough shelving, not enough seating and meeting space, so on and so on….) and how they were able to remedy those things in their new locations.
I learned a lot of lessons, some expected and some unexpected.
Existing patrons will use the spaces in new ways and new patrons will find you if there are welcoming places to sit with lots of natural light and they don’t feel like they are interfering with other people.
Lower, uncrowded shelving makes browsing much more pleasant.
You can’t have too many meeting spaces, seating, electric outlets, or spaces to hang out.
You can create zones in your spaces that define areas with changes in ceiling heights, furniture, carpet, etc.
With lots more windows comes lots more birds who also want to visit your library.
Circulation goes up if things are placed where they most make sense. Each library moved their Spanish language easy books to places where kids and parents were better able to browse the collections. For Buda, circ quintupled in this area.
The Library Director must advocate for the things that she knows the library must have in the new location that non-library folk may not realize. Both librarians advocated hard and received Opening Day collection money.
Friends and smart consultants help with volunteering, recommending and advocating.
Shifting will happen after the collection is initially put in – expect it and don’t beat yourself up for it. You can’t plan everything perfectly.
It is important to use language that your government officials, architects and designers understand. They may have stereotypical or old fashioned ideas of how a public library works.
Your staff will have to manage the spaces differently – more space, more displays, more circulation, etc.
One of the most important things I learned from the conversation is to trust your knowledge as a librarian – you know your building best, what needs to be changed in a new space and what things are most worth fighting for. Both Jacki and Melinda were very self-effacing but it was easy to discern that without their involvement in every aspect of the design and building of their new spaces, the buildings would be fabulous architectural spaces but would not be the heart of their communities as they have become with their input. You must be your strongest advocate.
They also talked about something that is important for all of us to remember--it takes a village and to use expert resources where you can. Jacki was lucky to work with an architect who is an avid public library user, Melinda had the strong support of key volunteers and both were able to partner with Ingram to get valuable advice on how to budget and calculate shelving for their opening day collections. Both of these women were unafraid to rely on the experts in areas they were not and to use all of their available resources to build amazing institutions that will serve their communities for many years.
Building a building is exciting and tough. Seek lots of advice, consult colleagues and manage what you can manage while picking your battles.
So, while I am glad I had the chance to work in a Carnegie, I am even more glad the teens visiting libraries today have awesome spaces to visit like Buda and Seguin.
And don’t forget, birds like libraries as well!