Kitchener Public Library

Kitchener Public Library gets digital reboot

A traditional institution adapts to tech-driven shifts with a $40-million reno and expansion
Thursday, October 8, 2015
By Michelle Ervin

Much is made of the existential threat technology poses to print media. Less talked about is the impact of the digital era on our beloved public libraries. Their traditional role as repositories of books, newspapers, magazines and microfiche is changing, and that changing role demands different infrastructure.

Kitchener Public Library’s $40-million renovation and expansion, completed in September 2014, responded to this new reality. Even the “books” lining the shelf-like second storey of the facility’s new façade have gone digital.

The library’s reboot also responded to the building’s age — in its fifties, having been originally constructed in 1962 — as well as the city’s population growth in the intervening decades. During that timeframe, the number of Kitchener residents swelled to more than 200,000 from around 70,000.

In fact, it was the rising demand for the library’s resources and services that made clear the need for a new facility in 1999. The business case its management presented to Kitchener City Council in 2004 cited changing accessibility standards, space needs for new and expanded services and programs, crowded and dated kid and teen areas, and aging building infrastructure and limited technology infrastructure.

After examining a number of sites, the City ultimately decided to renovate and expand the existing facility.

“The original building was always a great opportunity to revive it and give it its place,” said Janna Levitt, partner, LGA Architectural Partners, “and then bring the library into the 21st century so the building reflected the contemporary programming they were trying to do.”

The design team retained the exterior of the building, wrapping it with high-performance curtain wall — kind of like a book jacket wraps a hardcover novel — creating what Levitt calls a “front porch.”

The 25,000-square-foot addition, which extended all sides of the original building, increased the size of the facility from around 82,000 square feet to 107,000 square feet. The building’s footprint now spans the site, which meant moving the surrounding surface parking underground, into a three-level garage.

The building’s main entrance doors lead into an airy and open atrium. To the left is one of the library’s new program and service spaces, the Digital Media Lab, featuring 3D-printing, music, digital conversion and die-cutting stations. To the right is an open-plan reading room that showcases a 560-square-foot mural called “Enlightenment,” painted onto the plaster of the original building by artist Jack Bechtel.

The reading room is set up with flexible seating and workstations that can be reconfigured to make way for programming such as yoga classes. The dreamy starlight pattern on the original ceiling is preserved in a 3D diamond-shaped quilt of translucent panels (doing double duty to provide acoustical performance) perforated with small circular light fixtures. The area will also soon be outfitted with a café and a tech bar where visitors will be able to play with devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Just beyond the reading room begins the declining number of bookshelves — a shift driven by technology, explained Sabina Franzen, senior manager, administration, Kitchener Public Library.

“In libraries, where you used to have a lot of reference materials — for example, encyclopedias — so much more is available online now and we moved away from a lot of print and moved to online subscription for newspapers, magazines,” she said. “That also expands the world of newspapers. Now you can sit down and you can read something from England, something from Germany.”

Not only are there fewer bookshelves; the remaining bookshelves are shorter, with wider spaces in between them, improving lighting and sightlines. Gone are the “tunnels” created by the previous configuration of shelves, some of which stood taller than seven feet in narrow aisles, said Franzen. These changes addressed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act’s latest and anticipated requirements.

Across the atrium from the first sets of bookshelves is the compact circulation desk, another feature of the library that is shrinking in footprint alongside the rise of technology. Flanking the circulation desk on the right are self-checkout kiosks.

The atrium feeds into the kid’s area, which is now located in the rear of the building, where it enjoys 9,000 more square feet. Melissa Levin’s forest mural, created on glass film, animates the partition separating the new programming space from the bookshelves.

Though the physical bookshelf is on the decline, the metaphorical bookshelf that informed the library’s expansion and renovation reads prominently in LGA’s design.

“We basically took a whole bunch of pictures of different rows of books and then digitally manipulated them so they had a nice relationship of sizes and widths and bands,” said Levitt, “and then we used that to organize the whole way that the building elevation on the outside was organized in terms of opaque, semi-translucent and translucent.”

In reality, the “books” lining the shelf-like second storey of the facility’s façade are panels outfitted with programmable LED lighting. Those same lines are echoed in the laying of the thin and rectangular tile flooring and the striped pattern of the carpet tile flooring.

The design team threaded together the expanded and renovated sections of the facility by using some of the building’s original materials, buffing the terrazzo flooring and carrying through the wood veneers. Levitt said its key introduction was adding glass to the palette, in the form of curtain wall and frit pattern on the exterior of the building.

On the interior, said Franzen, the project presented the opportunity to address the building’s aging infrastructure, both to replace systems reaching the end of their life cycle and to integrate the wiring to support new technology. The building’s systems had been modified and added onto through the years, creating a patchwork of different components.

“It’s challenging to operate a building, especially a large building, that has various types of systems that are put together as best as they can be, but they never quite work as well as something that’s designed holistically,” said Franzen. “So you’d have areas that were cold and that were hot, and it was harder to manage.”

The new, more efficient, computer-controlled systems installed in the building are expected to contribute to the project’s targeted LEED Gold certification. The building also now has the wiring to support universal Wi-Fi as well as to meet the electrical requirements of new technology.

Through the course of the multi-phase project, the library continued to operate with only minor interruptions. The totally transformed institution, now known as the Central Library, officially reopened in September 2014. Today, the library is home to 107,000 cardholders as well as 90 full and part-time staff.

Though the arrival of CDs, DVDs and e-books have supplanted a share of the institution’s traditional formats, not everything in the expanded and renovated facility has gone digital. “Flux,” a Moss & Lam art installation in the main entrance, celebrates the printed book with a burst of 20,000 polycarbonate sheets silk-screened with red text, suspended in confetti-like fanfare.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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