Inside Downtown's new library

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October 10, 2005 // UPDATED 1:58 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

A peek behind the scaffolding at an information palace

When Downtown’s new $138 million Central Library opens on May 20, 2006, Minneapolis Public Library (MPL) officials promise more books, computers and seating, a larger children’s library, areas dedicated to teens and recent immigrants, a state-of-the-art auditorium, an art gallery and a caf/, all surrounding a wide open public space called Library Commons.

Construction is coming along so well that the temporary location at 250 Marquette Ave. will close Dec. 3 to begin moving books into the new palace. That means that for six months this winter and spring, Downtown library lovers will have to go elsewhere for hibernation reading.

Even with a half-year until opening, the new library has established itself on the Downtown streetscape. Its unique aspects pique interest and the imagination: Why the frosting on the windows? (Technically called “fritting.”) What are those fritted patterns supposed to be? And what is that big thing on top? A giant letter opener? Heating and cooling systems storage? Is that where the helicopters land? Spaceships?

What’s behind the glass is still a work in progress. On any given day, approximately 130 workers from 15 separate contractors are busy building the infrastructure that will hold Minnesota’s largest public library collection, according to city Project Coordinator Rick Johnson, who led a hardhat tour to show how it’s all coming together.

Outside influence

The New Central Library’s most visible

feature by far is the signature “wing-roof” that stabs out over Hennepin Avenue.

The wing provides a roof over Library

Commons, which Johnson called “our IDS Crystal Court.”

Despite numerous guesses at the wing’s other functions, Johnson said it’s an architectural statement. He said the total cost is hard to gauge because five different contractors contributed to the wing’s construction. Steel for the wing and its “support members” alone cost $1.6 million, Johnson said.

The wing is equipped with a snow-melting system to filter run-off through roof drains and prevent gigantic icicles from forming

and impaling Hennepin Avenue pedestrians and drivers.

Beyond the security fence and “Danger, keep out” signs, smaller exterior details come into focus. Architect Cesar Pelli chose the Kasota limestone to match his majestic Wells Fargo Center, 90 S. 7th St., and the abstract fritted designs on the windows to reflect natural elements of Minnesota seasons — prairie grass, birch trees, water and snow. Some designs are more abstract than others, it seems. “Everyone [recognizes] the trees and the grass,” said Johnson. “About half get the water. No one gets the snow.”

Windows on the south side are nearly covered to block out more sunlight, while north-facing windows are mostly clear, to allow for natural lighting, Johnson explained.

On the inside

While the exterior is mostly complete, the library’s interior evolves daily. Our tour started in the entrance off Hennepin Avenue. Currently, one must imagine the completed glass vestibule and maneuver around skeletal scaffolding, scattered equipment and half-built walls into what will be the heart of the building: Library Commons.

The open commons “is not just a solo experience,” said Karen Louise Boothe, MPL’s communications manager. “It’s a public square, a community gathering space.”

Johnson said the days of “ssh!” are over — talking will be allowed at the New Central Library, and you can even bring your coffee (outlawed in the old facility). Floors two, three and four will all feature reading and lounge areas near large gas fireplaces.

Quiet study rooms are available for those who revere the tradition of library etiquette. The entire building will have wireless Internet access.

On the east end of Library Commons, a four-story bank of plastic sheeting will become the glassy Nicollet Avenue entrance, “so transparent, we’ll need signs that say not to walk through the glass,’” Johnson said.

A coffee shop will open next to the entrance. In front of the wall of glass, walkway bridges will span the expansive public court to connect each of the upper floors, from which patrons can look down at the commons.

To the south, a high wall hides “the back of the house,” which will hold the facility’s circulation area, conveyor belts to sort materials automatically, a distribution center for all MPL branches, security command and loading docks, Johnson said.

To the north, an army of empty shelving stands in regimented rows, awaiting the arrival of the fiction, literature and language sections.

A trail of bent red beams will become abstract trees to lead kids into a children’s section three times larger than the old library’s, Johnson said.

Library Commons will be open past regular library hours to allow access to the skyway, as will other amenities such as conference rooms and the auditorium, Johnson said. He added that the skyway would not connect to the rest of the Downtown grid until surrounding blocks — which are currently parking lots, ramps or residential or pre-skyway buildings — are developed or remodeled. The city-owned Nicollet Hotel block immediately to the north is a likely condo site.

Open access

“The library provides books and knowledge for those who can’t afford to buy it,” Johnson said. “A library card is free.”

Boothe said the library provides “equal access to knowledge,” and the new library will expand that access. Almost all of the library’s collection — 95 percent — will be available to the public, compared to only 15 percent at the old Central Library. Half will be on regular shelves. The rest will be stored in automated shelving systems that patrons can access themselves.

The shifting shelves leave space for only one aisle, which seems at first like a trap in an Indian Jones film: push a button, and the shelves come together, redistributing the opening. Johnson said the machinery has a safety system — and a back-up safety system — “to make sure no one gets squished.”

The increased access to materials — including rare books and collectibles, which cannot be checked out — will require better security than the old library offered. According to at least one librarian (who asked to remain nameless,) the old and current library’s system does not always properly “desensitize” materials, which means that patrons set off alarms as they leave with checked-out materials. The phenomenon may desensitize librarians, who wave patrons through without checking for stolen materials.

Boothe said that librarians at the interim library find empty CD cases, and that materials “walk out the door.”

Library Director Kit Hadley said older videos and CDs may not get demagnetized because the bar code is on the inside, not on the box.

Hadley said the MPL will not buy a new security system, but “will be taking a different approach to security.” Hadley did not have details of what the new system will be, only that it will “definitely be different from the old system.”

Other libraries use a combination of human and technological security, Hadley said. Seattle’s new library features the “relatively expensive” radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which replace bar codes on materials, Hadley said; Downtown’s library will not use such a system.

“Collections security is a problem for libraries,” Hadley said. “It’s particularly true for [audio/visual] materials. It’s a cost of doing business.”

Hadley said the most valuable materials will not be on the shelves.

Upper floors

Up the glass elevators or “grand stairs,” the second floor is home to the business, science and technology sections; administrative offices; the Library Board room; and the skyway access. An art gallery near the skyway will allow the MPL to display its own gems, as well as traveling items.

The second-floor Teen Central will likely be the liveliest of the new building’s sections. The area extends out from the Hennepin Avenue side, “almost like a theatre marquee,” Johnson said. Inside, teens can study and socialize, use computers, listen to CDs and make art on pull-down screens amidst “cutting-edge” interior design.

Outside a Teen Central window is the smallest and most mature of the library’s three green roofs. The varied plantings sprouting through the mesh netting — grasses, wildflowers and some “bunny ear cactus” — will filter pollutants before rain water reaches storm drains, Johnson said. After three growing seasons the gardens will be self-sufficient and should need no maintenance, he said.

The largest of the green roof spaces will be 18,560 square feet of “low-growing succulent and bedrock bluff prairie plants” able to survive Minnesota winters. Patrons will not have access to or a view of the largest roof, which can be seen from neighboring buildings, Boothe said.

The green roofs conserve energy by insulating the library to retain heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. The roof-top grass will keep Downtown cooler, as well, by reducing the heat held by traditional roofs. The green roof should last longer than traditional roofs, as well, Boothe said.

The 225-seat auditorium will be smaller than the old library’s (which never filled up, Johnson said) but will feature better technology. In the past, “you had to bring your own slide projector,” he noted.

The auditorium and its two catering kitchens could be used for neighborhood meetings, readings, lectures, film series and other events, Johnson said.

The third floor will house the art, music, literature, and periodicals sections and Library of Congress materials. The fourth floor will feature history and social sciences, as well as the New Americans Center, where liaisons can assist recent immigrants in Spanish, Hmong and Somali with English Language Learning, citizenship tests, and community services for housing and jobs, Boothe said.

The library’s heating, cooling and electrical systems are housed in the 18 inches of space beneath each of the upper floors. The floors and systems can be moved to allow for changes in the future. “The ideas is that this will be the last library we’ll ever have to build,” Johnson said. “We want it to be able to adapt to how we want to use it in the future.”

The library’s first adaptation could come as soon as the end of next year, when construction could begin on the $22 million Planetarium — funded in the state’s 2005 bonding bill — which will rise on the fifth floor and add its own aesthetic to the wing’s architectural statement. The Planetarium was not funded when construction began, but the building was designed to accommodate the addition, Johnson said.

Stock up for the winter

The feast of new library amenities will come after a winter of famine. Few services will remain available between the interim library’s Dec. 3 closing and the new library’s May 20 debut. The book drop box (250 Marquette Ave., 2nd floor) and telephone and email reference service will continue until Feb. 17, 2006, when library staff begin their mass exodus to the new facility. It is uncertain when Friends of the Library bookstore will close for its own move.

INFORM — the library’s pay-per-use document delivery service — will remain open throughout. The library’s Picture File — currently at the Northeast Library — will be unavailable after Dec. 3.