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Designing a Public Library in the Face of a Global Crisis: A conversation with the director of a public library system

Jeffrey Sackenheim

Depending on where you look, you’ll find that the oldest libraries in the US date to somewhere between the late 1600s and early 1700s. Ohio’s “Three C’s” big cities claim the following founding dates: The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County – 1853, Cleveland Public Library – 1869, Columbus Metropolitan Library – 1873.  In the approximately 300-years since, libraries have borne witness to and survived countless significant national and global events: wars, plagues, depressions.

Given the unreal situation we find ourselves in, we thought it might be extremely relevant and of interest to the share real-time thoughts on the design of a new public library in the face of the current pandemic.

In late 2019, SHP was selected by the Delaware County District Library (DCDL) Board of Trustees to design a new branch library in the City of Powell, a suburb of Columbus, OH. Founded in 1890, DCDL today consists of the main library, three branch locations and a maker annex. In a typical year, DCDL circulates approximately 2 million items and has more than 100,000 cardholders.

Following an extensive community engagement effort, the conceptual design phase kicked off in February. The pandemic and stay-at-home orders hit mid-stream and our team, as well as the DCDL team, quickly pivoted to virtual design and programming meetings. Virtual meetings have also been held with consultants, the DCDL Construction Manager (Marker), as well as representatives from the City of Powell. (As an aside, we have learned that completing all of our design activities in a three-dimensional data-rich software platform has allowed for an immersive visual experience and seamless exchange of information to all team members currently working in a remote situation.)

We thought that now, in between design phases and having just completed an initial construction cost estimate, it would be a great time to pause and talk about the bigger implications of designing a public library in the face of a global pandemic. There’s obviously the low-hanging fruit tactical issues we will all be dealing with for the foreseeable future, regardless of building typology. As naturally curious and future-focused design and thinkers, we are interested in the longer-lasting (and possibly permanent) implications as they pertain to design, space, operations, etc.

To that end, below is an abridged version of a conversation between myself (Vice President + Creative Director, SHP) and George Needham, the Director of the Delaware County Public Library system.

Jeffrey (JS): When did DCDL officially close to the public in the face of the pandemic? What was that first week like?

George (GN): We closed to the public on March 15 and everything came to a screeching halt. The week leading up to that we distributed 10 times the normal material as people were scrambling to stock up. I think we all thought initially that this would be over pretty quickly. We had major events on the immediate horizon: a couple of pretty prominent authors were scheduled to be in town as part of a lecture series; plans with the Friends of the Library for some book sales; and an art festival. The first week was admittedly chaotic and we were somewhat in shock. However, within a week, we immediately had to start thinking about what could we offer now? What would a library be like in an era where there is no physical library? Our philosophy is that the library is a fusion of people, collection, place, and policies – and if you pull out any one of those, it changes everything. Overnight we lost the center of the community, the physical building. We had to come to terms with the fact that our location was suddenly online. Once we did that, we could apply the same people with the same great ideas, the same philosophy of service, and the same resources into this new location. This was the main intellectual change that we had to get through in order to start offering what we’ve been doing for the last seven weeks.

 

JS: What have the last 7 weeks looked like since you pivoted from bricks and mortar locations to an all-remote and digital service offering?

GN: We’ve taken a lot of the things that we would have done live in front of people and turned them into online programming and events. We’ve hosted multiple story times with our children’s librarians. This is interesting because we had a desire to record our programming and put it online as a resource for anyone to use at any time. There has been a hesitation to do this because of the belief that the kids themselves added measurably to what the offering was. What we’ve found out is that we’ve had more than 8,000 views to the children’s programs we’ve put up just in the month of April! We added a chat service, which we didn’t have previously. We’ve benefitted from having a little bit more time than usual to allow us to explore these things that we think will bring value to the community and ultimately implement them.

 

JS: What have you learned about your staff, community, and services? Have you had time to imagine how they might be integrated in the new branch?

GN: I’ve learned how resilient my staff is. There’s been great communication among all of our teams. They’ve continued learning and developing their skills as a librarian. Great ideas have continued to flourish. This was a challenge to their creativity: what could we do that we haven’t done before? What’s something that we wanted to try but with the pressure of the normal business, haven’t had an opportunity to? I’ve learned how strong our team really is. We’ve found out the community really wants us back. 99.9% of the communication we’ve had from the community has been extremely positive and supportive. And they share our concerns about safety and being smart. And they support that when we do start to reopen, in any capacity, that we’re doing it with their safety in mind, as well as our own. You know how when you break your leg, it supposedly grows back stronger in that spot? I think we’re going to have that kind of a comeback! I think people have come to a new understanding of what the library is, what we mean to them, and that they appreciate us – even with the people that typically haven’t taken advantage of our services.

 

JS: What are your current thoughts on opening back up?

GN: When we open up, we’re not going to open up the buildings. Starting right after Memorial Day, we’re going to do curbside pick-up and drive-thru service depending on which location you go to. We’ve stockpiled cleaning supplies, disinfectant, gloves, masks… we’ve put up plexiglass barrier for staff in the building. Everything you’re seeing in retail, we’re doing in our libraries. We will be operating on a reduced schedule from what we typically offer just because we have to do a lot more sanitation and stuff in between. One thing we have to contend with is that we naturally have returns – that’s something that you can’t do in retail right now – no returns. We rely on them. So we have to quarantine materials when they come back for a certain period of time. The best information we have is that we’ll need to quarantine these materials for 3-4 days. When we do open the buildings again, that’s an entirely different conversation and it won’t be what people will be used to from the past. Social distancing, reducing the number of chairs, tables, computer – we’re still working on these procedures. It could include limiting the number of people in the building. And we know that a lot of the things we really love to do, in-person programming for example, those things are going to stay on-line for a while. We’re going to go slow and monitor what’s going on around us with the restaurants and bars starting to open.

 

JS: What practices or service offerings have you adopted that you believe have staying power beyond the eradication of the virus?

GN: We’re going to put as much electronic content out there as possible. We had been investing in e-books and I see that continuing, even for the population that previously said they don’t like e-books. We’ve found that they’re accessing them on their devices. We’re going to see that continue to grow a lot faster than we thought it would. Another thing is, there’s no reason why we can’t collaborate with five other neighboring systems to bring in a huge author, like James Patterson for example. Not physically bring him in, but sponsor a conversation with one of the biggest authors in the world – we can offer some pretty amazing opportunities to our communities in a digital format. And I’ve got to say that I’ve seen some great cooperation between our neighboring systems through all of this.

 

JS: The notion of sharing those resources now, with the click of a button in real-time has been a pretty fascinating thing to watch – how quickly those walls came down.

GN: It’s going to have a major impact on education in this country. This is the most interesting education lab experiment that’s ever been done. There’s been such a tremendous rupture in the way we do traditional education in this country and it’s hit everything from pre-K through graduate school. I don’t think we have a clue yet on the positives and the negatives associated with this. I think the repercussions are going to last for decades.

JS: It could be that schools begin to share resources in a way that they haven’t before. That maybe a scientist in California is routinely woven into a normal part of a science classroom curriculum where for one period each week the students join a virtual environment for a special demonstration – that they access the best experts from around the globe in real-time.

 

JS: As you begin to think about slowly reopening, what do you miss the most about the physical environment and the sense of place that the library building provides?

GN: I’ve worked in libraries for almost 50 years, since I was in high school. The library was the third place: it wasn’t home and it wasn’t school. Being in the library, being around the people and the collections, there’s an idea in the community that education for all, lifelong learning for all was important enough to invest significant resources in building a library. I miss the daily recognition of that. When we open our doors every morning to the community, we’re saying: it doesn’t matter if you’re homeless, run a business in town, you’re a retired millionaire – it doesn’t matter – you’re welcome here. You can do what you want, learn what you want. That has been a giant hole in the community. Sure we can provide it online, but there’s already so much online. It’s not the same as having a place where people come together to learn, to self-education, grow – and even just to entertain themselves. I’ve missed the synergy of creativity and energy that you get when people come together. We get stuff done on-line in virtual meetings, but it’s not at all the same. It’s been OK for sharing, but it’s not been great for creating. I miss the energy from being with these really smart and creative people every day.

 

JS: We had been in a pretty consistent rhythm of face-to-face meetings and work sessions leading up to this event, and quickly that all changed overnight. We have even facilitated some conversations with various community leaders outside of the Library system. How has the virtual design and programming effort gone from your perspective?

GN: At first, I was really nervous that we were going to lose momentum when we had to put the brakes on the in-person meetings. The idea of having small groups meet with your designers, in groups of 5-6 people tops has worked out really well. Our selection process internally for who was going to participate was really important too. We needed people who were willing to talk and share their opinion, who had good insight into the current needs and operations of their respective department, but also had an eye towards what the future library should look like. I think we ultimately have had an equivalent experience to if we were able to have these meetings in-person in our boardroom. I think we got really great ideas. The design changes that have continued to evolve and take shape since those meetings – I think they’re all very positive. We were able to iron out some things that some people were unclear about. Overall, people feel like they were heard, that this was a good process. The feedback that I’ve gotten from staff has all been excellent. The design continues to get better. I think both of our teams are working well with this. I know our Board committee will want to be more involved once things return to normal. Your team has been very upfront with us, and I know we’ve been willing to share our ideas and opinions with you. Overall, I think we’re doing okay. We might be about two to three weeks behind schedule, but given everything that’s gone on, I think we’re in really good shape.

Sometimes you just have to take that risk on the future.

JS: We were at a point where we had a pretty good understanding of the types of spaces, how they flowed together, how big they were, how many, what types of amenities might be in each one… we knew it was going to be a three-story building, with a lot of differentiated spaces and even some spaces that don’t exist in the current library system. Has DCDL’s response to the pandemic influenced any thoughts about how you imagine your space functioning in the future? Any changes to the types or sizes of spaces currently being planned for? 

GN: You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the community spaces. We have a lot of square footage dedicated to meeting spaces. Human beings are social animals. They want to be together. Nobody prefers zoom meetings to the real thing. I was concerned that the desire for meeting space might be softer in 2021 and 2022… but the more I’ve thought about it, that may be true, but we’re designing this building to last for at least 50-years. People want to be together. After past events, people came back. And so, I don’t think human nature is going to change because of this pandemic. We’re building for the long-term. Yes, we’ll look at air filtration, air exchanges – what kind of materials we use and how clean we can keep them. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is we’ve always kept janitorial services hidden, I think they’ll be upfront a little more. That we’re on top of our cleaning program! We’re wiping things down all the time. The concept that we’re trying to protect peoples’ health I think will last a little bit longer. Once we have a vaccine, we are going to get back to a period where it will just be another thing in the environment. I’m not ready to pull out all of those community spaces. In the long term, people are people and they’re going to want to have a shared experience. They want to have time together, to learn together.

JS: I can imagine some of your community spaces having a more robust technology and A/V solution planned for them than maybe what we would have done just a few months ago. Maybe the community learning stair, which is part of your current design, is a place where you would hold a live in-person author lecture – but now it has the technology fully integrated to allow you to live-stream it with the click of a button to people all around the globe.

GN: Could affect lighting, equipment. Knowing that we’re going to have more and more people doing things on-line long term, we’re going to have be really mindful of that. They’ve taken on a new importance over the last weeks. We’re not first responders, but we’re second responders. We’re there for people to help get them back on their feet after an emergency or an event in their life. This building will have a pretty important role to play in that as we come through this.

JS: Couldn’t agree more. We’re extremely thankful to be a part of this with your team and your community. We’ve said from day one that we are drawn to designing libraries and public facilities because they are the centers of communities and they are open to everybody. People from all walks of life, throughout the entire day, are using them for a lot of different reasons. They’re special places and we hope to help you make something really special.

GN: I’m delighted with the process so far and I’m so thankful that I was asked to participate in this conversation. It really made me stop and think about what we were doing. This library is a symbol of hope in this community. I think one of the things that’s really taken a beating over the last eight weeks has been hope. Sometimes you just have to take that risk on the future.

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