William Rawn Associates, Architects come to Bibliotheca Class (as do David Lamberth, Matthew Sheehy, and Michael Barker)

We are just thrilled to have William Rawn and his colleague Cliff Gayley of William Rawn Associates in our Bibliotheca class (which I’m co-teaching with Jeffrey Schnapp) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design this morning.  They’ve designed the Cambridge Public Library’s main building, as well as the Rochester Public Library.  They are also discussing two branch library designs: Mattapan Branch and the East Boston Branch of the Boston Public Library.  (These live-blog notes of class are bound to be rough.  The conversation brings together practitioners from design, architecture, and library sciences with faculty and students.)

Cliff starts with the premise that physical space in libraries remains important, even in a digital era.  The theme of democracy is important to them.  They cite the grandeur of the Boston and New York Publics; the loveliness, but aloofness and apartness, of the H. H. Richardson libraries; and the classic American image of the Carnegie libraries as antecedents.

In working on the Cambridge Public Library project, they give great credit to Susan Flannery, the Cambridge city librarian, for teaching them and providing inspiration for the design. The space, Susan told the architects, is that the library must be clearly a “library” as soon as you walk in, with books as an organizing force in what you see as soon as you walk in.  She wanted to make the library a “town common.”  They have circulated 1,000,000 books in two years.  In a city of 100,000 people, that means 5 books a year.  The insights from visionary librarians are crucial to successful design, they argued.  They also described the helpfulness of the 50 meetings that they conducted in Cambridge, which was especially extensive as such processes go.  An open structure, with reading spaces along the first floor, were important aspects of the design.

In describing the Mattapan branch library of Boston, Bill Rawn echoed the democratic themes they hit earlier in the conversation.  He called the building “an outpost of learning and opportunity in Mattapan.”  The size is about 20,000 square feet.  The kids and young adults in the building are behind glass that allows for visibility and openness, but also allows them to make some noise.  The young adult section was designed to be the biggest of the 26 branch libraries in Boston.  “Robust technology and fun furniture” with “very flexible” spaces including “lots of seating” in the young adult areas were important.  With leaner staffing in public libraries, the circulation desk needed to allow for good sight lines throughout the building.  They’ve also designed a teleconferencing room into the Mattapan branch.

They also described the Rochester Public Library, embedded in the heart of the city as a “civic space,” and the East Boston branch library (smaller than Mattapan: 14,000 – 15,000 square feet), near Logan Airport.  In both of these instances, they talked about the importance of the discussion as to where the site would be.  Boston Public Librarian Amy Ryan’s vision for the public library spaces were very open and transparent, with noisier areas behind glass for kids and others who wish to be less contemplative while there.

Gayley and Rawn described a series of principles that they brought to each of these designs.  Democratic access to information; openness and transparency; the story of immigrants and libraries as places of opportunity (now, expressed in part through access to technology); and the importance of local politics all popped up as key themes throughout the session.  I wish I had caught them all verbatim as they went by; I’ll try to get the slides and post them somewhere, if we can.

Rawn: “we think architecture students are not taught to listen as well as they might be.”  The projects tend to come out of the student’s head — which is great for training in design.  Listening is about hearing from the users (library patrons) as well as the representatives of the clients (the librarians and politicians, in public library projects).

Schnapp: the iterative, consultative process is new to our era.  The big New York and Boston Public Libraries, for instance, were about patrician donors and design processes that were closed.  The Cambridge Public Library process couldn’t be more different than the patrician approach.  (Bill Rawn mentioned how much he loves the interior of the NYPL main building, even though it is antithetical to his approach and ideals in many respects.)

Schnapp also asks about the natural light that appears to be an emphasis across all the examples they showed.  We had a good back-and-forth about the value of natural light today to patrons in these spaces, but also the challenges associated with using natural light while reading materials through technological devices.

I happen to love the new Cambridge Public Library’s main branch.  It’s one of my favorite public spaces in the world.  We’re lucky to have it in our backyard.

* * *

The second half of class, we have three Harvard insiders with us: Prof. David Lamberth (former chair of the Library Implementation Work Group, charged with redesigning the library system at Harvard); Mike Barker (my completely amazing former colleague at HLS Library, now in the central Harvard Library office); and Matthew Sheehy (head of access services and our off-site depository).  They are teeing up the hard problems of space in the Harvard Library transition.

They put on the table a big idea.  Think about the collection as one collection at Harvard and the physical spaces as one physical space, in principle contiguous.  When you bring back a book, for instance, it just goes where it goes, with barcode and associated RFID and stays where it is returned.  Instead, focus our efforts on building perfect shelves for those things that need to be curated in that fashion.  Focus our organizational conceptual efforts on building perfect Shakespeare shelves, and move other materials around, and quit investing in getting everything to its current shelves.  There would have to be lots of digital investment: scanning of tables of contents, development of online finding systems (like StackView/ShelfLife); and other innovations that would make everything findable.  How much of this material do we really need to have, on campus, in a local library, for our current constituencies?  One effect would be to free up a lot of space into the libraries, which might attract faculty into the renovated, freed-up spaces.

A clarification from Lamberth: the “perfect shelves” should not be fixed.  They should be ad hoc and recreated quickly on the fly.  Various things will be more popular at certain moments, causing some issues of priority; but these are practical issues, not that difficult to solve (other than the politics).  He’s not against classification.  It’s just that bar codes would, in his design, replace the old “shelf lists.”  Mike Barker clarifies that students make “perfect shelves” all the time: it’s what they do in carrels, he says.

A great question from the audience: if that idea is right, then you are rejecting the idea of buying to collect and moving to just-in-time, not just-in-case, right?  Lamberth: it depends.  Collection development used to be done by faculty members in consultation with bibliographers, Lamberth said, in a way that is no longer true.  The buying decisions today are made by librarians on their own.  The obscure materials we need to invest in and collect for the long term; the things sold in Amazon we should not.  (One bibliographer: much of what Lamberth says is true, but we need to avoid having every academic library buying the same materials.  There are still may materials that are not as available as we’d like, or kept in as good conditions that we could here, even imperfectly.)

David W.: wouldn’t we want to make digital versions of those privileged perfect shelves?  The problem is mostly one of expense.  We can’t spend so much on the present at the expense of one century or two centuries from now, says Lamberth.

One thought on “William Rawn Associates, Architects come to Bibliotheca Class (as do David Lamberth, Matthew Sheehy, and Michael Barker)

  1. Pingback: Top Architects: William Rawn Associates | Spiriterial©

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