Book It

By Chuck Ross, Contributing Writer June 1, 2005

Back in the early days of the World Wide Web—all of 10 years ago—some predicted the web would bring an end to the traditional library, as efforts to convert text into an electronic format would make physical storage less important. Well, the ongoing strength of library construction today has proved those predictions wrong, and experts say that today’s new libraries are only getting bigger and more feature-packed.

“Right now, dollar-wise, it gets bigger every year,” says Dick Waters, president of Cottonwood, Ariz.-based Providence Assocs., a consulting firm that helps library systems develop programming requirements for new or renovated facilities. “I think the one thing that’s not happening is that the Internet is going to stop the need for libraries. In fact, everyone I know who’s building a library is building a library bigger than the one they had before.”

This added sophistication is changing both major library breeds—community libraries and the more specialized archival facilities. Designers of central and branch community facilities are paying more attention to features like wireless networks and lighting to boost user satisfaction. University libraries and other special collections go beyond these concerns to more sophisticated control systems that provide better conditions for the rarities housed within. Take Harvard’s Widener Library for example. Environmental conditions were often controlled by a very non-technological means—the manual opening and closing of the building’s many windows. Of course, the resulting humidity fluctuation and introduction of air contaminants posed a potential hazard to the collection. So Harvard employed the services of engineers from Einhorn Yaffee Prescott’s Boston office to upgrade the facility and provide a better method for controlling temperature and humidity (see “When Building New Isn’t an Option,” below).

Community support continues

Experts see continued popular support for such renovations, as well as the continued addition of new libraries, despite rumblings of opposition from other public construction sectors. In fact, some argue that presenting a library project in a funding referendum can actually help the chances of other less-popular projects listed on the ballot.

“The states are contributing funds because it’s a very popular movement,” says Anet Willingham, a Heery International vice president who just finished heading up that firm’s project-management effort for Jacksonville, Fla.’s $150-million public library program. That project involved a new central library along with six new branch libraries and the renovation or expansion of 12 existing facilities. “You put a library on a referendum with a courthouse, and you’re going to get a big response.”

One contributor to this continued support is the effort librarians are making to open their facilities up to local communities. New signature municipal facilities, such as Seattle’s gem, designed by Rem Koolhaas, and Minneapolis’ Cesar Pelli-designed library, currently under construction, have garnered headlines for their glassy atriums, auditoriums and roof gardens. And even planners of local branches are seeking the extras they think their facilities need to face off against the big-box bookstores that libraries now see as their competition.

Willingham says this is just what Jacksonville librarians were looking for in their new and spruced-up outlets. Big-box stores such as Barnes & Noble, she says, “have a very comfortable atmosphere—it’s almost like an extension of your home. The public libraries are feeling almost like they have to compete with that. A lot of the modern libraries you see today look like a Barnes & Noble.”

As a result, comfortable chairs and free wireless Internet access are becoming common library attractions. Even more surprising—and inviting—is that many new libraries incorporate a coffee counter and allow cup-carrying patrons to wander unimpeded through the stacks.

This new emphasis on customer service is resulting in community libraries that often look very different from traditional libraries. Automated checkout stations mean much less prominent circulation desks. And reference librarians may more often be found answering patron questions on the library floor, rather than working from behind a centralized reference desk.

Some of these changes also are being driven by operational budgets that may not match the money available for new construction, Willingham notes. But new technologies, including wireless voice and data networks, are helping facilitate this decentralization.

“They have less and less money to work with, and therefore, they have less and less staff on the floor,” she says. “That means wireless voice systems for the staff,” so a librarian helping a patron find a book in the stacks can also use a wireless headset to pick up an incoming call or even call security staff if they spot suspicious behavior.

Wired networks are increasing as well. Card catalogs have been replaced by computerized databases in most libraries today. Additionally, libraries have become the only place where some area residents can access the Internet, so hard-wired workstations are increasingly important in construction and renovation plans.

Meeting electrical demand

All this means greater attention to electrical planning—not just in terms of big-picture issues like the amount of power supplied, but also when it comes to low-level details such as outlet placement. As patrons bring in more of their own electronic devices, giving them easy access to power supplies is crucial to ensuring a positive library experience.

Willingham says conversations she had with Jacksonville librarians in that city’s planning process confirmed this point. Heery asked these professionals what they’d do to ensure patrons were satisfied with the new and renovated facilities, and received a nearly unanimous response.

“They all came back with the same answer: Make sure we had a consultant on board who would give us flexibility with outlets and communication,” Willingham reports.

To meet that need, Willingham says, Jacksonville library designers incorporated additional outlets and more network connections than would be initially required, “because we knew there were going to be more and more computers.”

Lighting requirements also are becoming more sophisticated, experts say, as designers seek to meet the twin goals of customer comfort and energy efficiency. More sophisticated products and controls are contributing to meeting these goals.

“The key to a good library, from a customer point of view, is good lighting,” says Waters. What makes this goal particularly challenging for library designers, he adds, are the many different formats of material they must keep in mind when planning fixtures and placement. Glossy magazine pages, backlit microfiche images and good, old-fashioned books each have different reflective qualities to consider.

Willingham notes the added complexity of needing to address the range of patrons’ visual acuity. “You’re serving a very wide range of people,” she says, “from the very tiny tots to the elderly.” In Jacksonville, she notes, designers fine-tuned the pitch of both light fixtures and lower-level bookshelves to enhance readability of book spines.

While patron comfort is the primary library-lighting concern, designers are also working to minimize lighting use when patrons and employees don’t need it. Planners of Minneapolis’ new central library are taking advantage of architect Cesar Pelli’s extensive use of glass curtainwall to cut the facility’s lighting use. They’re incorporating light sensors and dimming ballasts to limit artificial illumination whenever possible, according to Rob Grott, P.E., an electrical designer with St. Paul, Minn.-based Ericksen Ellison and Assocs. (EEA), the project’s mechanical and electrical engineer.

Occupancy sensors are planned for the library’s stacks—an increasingly common approach for these sporadically occupied areas. However, EEA designers took a different approach to the common row-by-row zoning approach, based on how library patrons conduct a book search.

“The way people typically look for a book is they get to the right section and start zigzagging through,” Grott says. So engineers zoned stack lighting by bay, rather than individual row, to minimize the slow-motion strobe effect of lights turning on and off as a book-hunter progresses in his or her search.

HVAC needs vary

Designers say mechanical requirements are the biggest differentiator between community libraries and the more specialized archival facilities that can house irreplaceable manuscripts and other rare collections. Patron comfort, along with the ability to maintain consistent environmental conditions, are the drivers in community libraries, engineers say, while preservation of more fragile materials is the goal for special collections.

“It’s really not much more stringent than a typical spec office building,” says EEA executive vice president, Jim Art, P.E., of the HVAC controls scheme for a standard public library. “Paper can take swings in temperature and humidity; it just can’t take fast swings.”

“We pay a lot of attention to it,” Art continues. “We know that there are ideal conditions to protect these materials. We also know it’s usually prohibitively expensive to provide those conditions, so there’s usually some value engineering that goes on. We’ll try to reach an agreement on what range of temperature and humidity is optimal and design for that.”

Generally, he adds, community library projects end up targeting a humidity range of 30% in the winter to approximately 50% in summer, with temperatures ranging from 70°F in winter to 76°F in summer. Designs also commonly address air-quality issues, Art says, with better-than-average air-filtration systems.

“To be practical, we usually don’t put in HEPA filters,” he says. “But we put in good filters, better than in a spec office building.”

Designers of archival facilities, on the other hand, are often taking advantage of advanced controls systems to ensure that optimal conditions for each stored medium are maintained with a high degree of accuracy.

“The body of work [preservation researchers] have assembled has really taken a giant leap,” says Daniel W. Murphy, P.E., LEED AP, a senior vice president with Chicago-based Environmental Systems Design, Inc. (ESD). “They’re beginning to realize that certain indoor air levels are mandatory and certain lighting is forbidden. We’re starting to see temperature requirements within one degree and humidity requirements within 2%.”

The actual target temperatures and humidity levels for these high-end projects are entirely dependent on the collection, Murphy says. He urges engineers to turn to the real experts—the archive’s librarians—when developing system specifications.

“It’s not the engineers setting the ground rules,” Murphy says. “First and foremost, you’ve got to listen to the archivist. It’s up to the professional [engineer] to come up with something that supports that.”

Communities LEED the way

Given the differing system requirements, it’s not surprising that community libraries and archival facilities also place differing importance on sustainable design principles. Designers of structures housing sensitive materials have many fewer options, and their priorities have to remain focused on the needs of potentially priceless collections. As a result, notes Murphy, energy requirements might be higher than the ASHRAE energy model would allow.

However, community library designers are finding their clients more interested than ever in following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines, even if LEED certification isn’t a goal.

“We’re seeing that more and more owners are seeking to gain LEED certification, or are seeking to go through some sort of sustainable-design process,” says Art. The Minneapolis Central Library, for example, is implementing a number of green design practices, even though LEED certification is not a project goal.

Among the most ambitious plans are the green roof and rainwater-harvesting system that designers are incorporating for the roof’s irrigation. A committee of engineers and library staff, along with an outside energy consultant, reviewed this plan and others.

Waters, the library-programming consultant, says he regularly covers sustainable design issues with his clients as they outline requirements for new and renovated facilities.

“We put it in our building program and talk about the payback,” he says. “There’s an incredible first cost, but you’ll definitely get it back over time. I think in five years it will be a requirement in any community that’s thinking about its environment.”

Remote storage and RFID

Librarians are also taking a new look at how they manage their growing collections. Space concerns are forcing some community facilities to look at outside storage, with distribution center strategies more common to mass retailers.

In Jacksonville, for example, Willingham says planners initially wanted to use the new Central Library as an intake center for all new acquisitions. But an abandoned Kmart on the city’s fringe proved a more sensible real estate investment. A new conveyor system, modeled after a similar installation engineers observed in Columbus, Ohio, will enable more efficient processing of books into Jacksonville’s system.

Another distribution center tactic, the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, also is being investigated for the technology’s potential capability to help a library track acquisitions through its entire life span.

“That’s probably the hottest item in public libraries today; a lot of libraries are moving in that direction,” Waters says, noting the importance—even in the pubic sector—of a certain distribution center titan, in how the technology may advance. “The first costs are pretty staggering, and there is some concern that people need to make sure they know what Wal-Mart is going to do, because they’re going to drive the marketplace. Clearly, it’s coming on strong, and as long as policy makers aren’t gun-shy because of privacy, it’s definitely the right way to go.”

Protecting Against Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 anti-censorship fable, Fahrenheit 451 , draws its name from the temperature at which books spontaneously combust, a condition that still strikes fear in librarians’ hearts. And for these professionals, an ill-designed water-based sprinkler system could compound their nightmares.

Though gaseous clean agent systems can be used to extinguish fires, many local codes still require water-based approaches.

“In Chicago, the only thing they recognize is water,” says Daniel W. Murphy, P.E., LEED AP, senior vice president of Chicago-based Environmental Systems Design, which has designed fire-protection systems for numerous archival collections. “They’ll let you put in a pre-action sprinkler system; most places will do that. In addition, they’ll put in some type of gas system.”

In such arrangements, the gas-based system is triggered first. Targeted, pre-action water sprinklers then go into action if the gas fails to extinguish a blaze.

This combined approach is being adopted in the plans St. Paul, Minn.-based Ericksen Ellison and Associates is developing for the Minneapolis Central Library, according to Jim Art, P.E., a senior vice president with the firm.

Some designers argue, however, that a water-only approach may actually be safer for books and other rare documents. The only currently allowed gas-based product leaves a difficult-to-clean residue, they say, and requires ample storage space within a building. Additionally, archivists have developed new ways to restore water-damaged books and papers by freeze-drying and dehydrating them.

“There’s a big debate about this,” says David Fixler, AIA, LEED AP, a principal with the Boston office of A/E firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott. “No matter what you use, you’ve got a clean-up problem, and [restorers] have found that for the problem of drying out books they’ve got a pretty good process. There’s no hard answer, but I think more and more [are] going back to a very well-designed wet system.”

Such a system was implemented for the renovation of Harvard University’s Widener Library, which houses more than three million volumes in a unique floor-to-ceiling shelving arrangement.

Though pre-action sprinklers were discussed, librarians opted for a wet sprinkler system to protect their priceless collection.

“They thought the wet system would give them a quicker response time,” said Maureen Donato, P.E., a senior associate with EYP, Boston, and mechanical engineer on the project. “Wet books can be fixed, but if they’re burned, we’ve lost them forever.”

When Building New Isn’t an Option

Perhaps the most serious mechanical system challenges for libraries arise in renovation projects, where the need to preserve a historic structure is matched with the demand for a strictly controlled indoor environment. This is the situation engineers from Einhorn Yaffee Prescott’s (EYP) Boston office faced when they took on the task of modernizing Harvard’s landmark Widener Library without affecting the historic structure’s appearance.

The building, originally constructed in 1915, houses more than 3 million volumes in a unique floor-to-ceiling shelving arrangement that couldn’t be disturbed by renovations. It lacked both sprinklers and adequate emergency egress, and in many areas, environmental conditions were managed by opening or shutting windows. School administrators recognized that the safety conditions posed a danger to students, and that humidity fluctuations and air contaminants posed an equal, if longer-term, hazard to the collection.

Space for new fire-rated stairs, along with added elevators and mechanical equipment, was realized by topping off two existing interior light courts, which also allowed architects to create two new reading rooms. A sophisticated new control system, along with zoned air handling, advanced air filtration, UV-filtered fluorescent lighting and bulked-up power and data wiring, has created an environment in which both books and students can thrive.

Temperature is now maintained at a steady 68°F all year round, with humidity levels ranging between 30% minimum in the winter and 40% maximum in the summer. Large numbers of windows throughout the building made more exact humidity control difficult, according to Maureen Donato, P.E., a senior EYP associate and mechanical engineer on the project. Stack areas are served with 100% outside air and pretreated by gas-fired desiccant dehumidifiers and a 95% gas-filtration system.