Like so many of our legacy institutions, the Parkway Central Library has been struggling to keep up with changes in culture. Fewer students rush there after school to research a paper, and those who do rarely check out books. Why would they when they can download e-versions from the library’s website? Even professional researchers increasingly access the library’s digital archives remotely. The stately building truly comes alive only when there is a scheduled event — an author talk, a poetry slam, a children’s program.
The idea that such events and workshops would become central to the library’s mission was still a radical concept in 2003, when officials drew up a master plan to reinvigorate the Parkway building and tackle Philadelphia’s serious digital divide. They proposed a conventional addition that would have doubled the size of the already-enormous building. The plan called for an expansive (and expensive) new children’s library, a community space, a modern auditorium, and acres of desktop computers. At one point, library officials penciled in space for 300 workstations.
When that long-awaited expansion opens to the public on Friday, April 12, exactly eight desktop computers will occupy a single table in the new wing. It is a sign of how much the world has changed since the library began planning the project 15 years ago. Like our devices, the Free Library’s expansion has been miniaturized.
Part of that has to do with the library’s inability to raise the $100 million needed to build the sprawling showplace designed by architect Moshe Safdie back in 2003. But the incredible shrinking library project is not necessarily a bad thing.
Over the last two decades, as smartphones have taken over our lives and put the sum of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, libraries have experienced enormous disruptions, similar to those that have transformed newspapers and the music business. The project’s long gestation has given the library time to rethink its priorities.
The library put plans for a fancy addition on hold and instead decided to colonize a large space within its existing building. Following the lead of other libraries, the Free Library dismantled the enormous steel book stacks that occupied the back half of the Parkway building. The million-volume collection was sent to an off-site storage location. In its place, Safdie Architects has installed a tightly edited group of multipurpose rooms, underground storage for roughly 300,000 volumes, and administrative offices. The total cost was $35.8 million, roughly a third of the 2003 estimate.
Outfitted with modular furniture that can be easily rearranged, the new spaces are intended to do quadruple duty as reading rooms, classrooms, meeting rooms, and event spaces. Even the librarians’ desk is sized so it can be converted to a bar for after-hours events.
By reconfiguring its offerings, the library hopes to attract a new generation with different needs. The library is now a place to seek job counseling, record a mixtape, practice a business pitch, and watch a cooking demonstration, says library director Siobhan Reardon. ”The idea is to really activate this building for civic engagement.”
Most of those activities will occur on the main floor, which has been dubbed the Common. At first glance, the sun-drenched space looks like a typical library reading room, with lots of brightly colored easy chairs. But its numerous alcoves can be deployed for classes, community meetings, and other noisy activities. For those who want quiet, there is a row of glass-enclosed cubicles along the east wall.
The Common, which faces Wood Street, overlooks a lower level that houses the library’s new business resource center. That room is really the heart of the expansion. Modeled on a coworking space, it offers a range of services intended to help aspiring entrepreneurs and small businesses. You’ll be able to sign up for a free headshot by a professional photographer or a critique of your business pitch by an expert.
Tucked away at the far end of the lower level is the library’s new teen center. To give it the feeling of a hideaway, the entrance is outside on 20th Street, down a narrow flight of steps. Along with a collection of manga comics, the teen center offers a maker space that will have equipment for printing zines and recording music.
While the new programming is exactly what the library needs to reinvent itself for the internet age, the architecture of the new wing often undermines its efforts to rebrand itself.
The all-white interiors are especially severe. Safdie has tried to energize the rooms with a distinctive ceiling grid and patterned terrazzo floors. But only the use of brightly colored furniture and few historic elements, like the wagon-wheel chandeliers, keep the rooms from feeling like a doctor’s office. It’s a shame that the artwork, by Colette Fu, is also white (and virtually unintelligible).
You might not know you were in a library at all if Safdie hadn’t segmented the spaces with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. In the renderings, they are packed with books, warming up the spare, modern rooms.
The shelves were still bare when I visited, but I wondered how this strategy would work in real life. At 22 feet, bookcases are too tall to be really functional. And while the books will look great when you see them from the spine side, what will the effect be when you’re looking at the yellowed pages? The feature effectively reduces the books to decoration, a signifier of what the library once was.
It’s hard to imagine how this generic quality will further the library’s mission in the teen center, which is supposed to help attract a new generation of library users. Rarely has a space aimed at teens been less free-spirited. Unlike libraries across the country, the Parkway building will have no cafe to encourage sociability. Instead, a pair of vending machines will be tucked away in a corner of the teen center.
One place where the clinical look is welcome is in the new restrooms. For decades, the library’s foul facilities have been the shame of the city. Because the Free Library — like many urban libraries — is a refuge for homeless people and drug users, maintaining the restrooms at a decent level of cleanliness has required Herculean efforts. To understand what the library is up against, look above the restroom doors: The blue lights are motion detectors, meant to alert librarians in case someone inside passes out from an overdose.
Many other features in the new wing will no doubt dismay traditionalists — the few that remain, anyway. But the world is changing too fast not to acknowledge how important this new wing is to the library’s survival. Across the system, the number of people using the library has been falling, from 5.1 million visitors in 2017 to 4.9 million last year. Visits to the Parkway building are essentially flat, at roughly 685,000 annually.
If these bright new spaces succeed in bringing more people in through the library’s ornate, brass-trimmed door, that alone will be a victory. Maybe a few will even check out a book.