Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Portland Public Library get facelift

Posted on March 02, 2009 in News
By David O'Donnell

Rendering of the upgrades to be done to the Portland Public Library. Rendering done by C. Michael Lewis & Scott Simons Architects.
Katie Wilber
Rendering of the upgrades to be done to the Portland Public Library. Rendering done by C. Michael Lewis & Scott Simons Architects.

It’s been a rough year for libraries.

While Glickman got a brand new facade this spring, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony to boot, it was still only a facade – the University’s budget problems have sapped its acquisition and technology funds for the foreseeable future.

Venture further in-town, and you’ll find a public library system that’s had to grapple with layoffs and struggled to keep its locations open since last spring, after a plan to close the west end’s Rieche branch unleashed a storm of epic proportions, as President Botman might say. The branch ended up getting a big reduction of its hours instead, and now even the main branch keeps its doors closed on Mondays.

But despite the recession, the public library has some fairly major bright spots in its future. Some are related – as in, why wouldn’t a place that hands out free stuff thrive at a time like this?

And some are purely incidental. After years of raising funds, answering to voters, extensive planning and calling in late fees, the Portland Public Library is finally ready to to start renovating its downtown headquarters.

If that doesn’t do much for you, take a peak at the 30-year old structure before demolition begins on April 1.

“People have no reservations about telling us how they feel about it,” says Heather Tiffany, Director of Development and Programming. “And we listen to comments – it’s not safe enough, too uninviting, doesn’t smell very good.”

The smell and the 1970s color scheme will probably not survive a year of heavy construction, which will force most of the stacks out into a warehouse (you can still request anything) and cram the daily crowds into a single room in the basement.

Again, not a great year for libraries, but Tiffany sat down with the Free Press to talk about why she and others are looking forward to 2010.

Free Press: So this renovation has been a long time in the making.

Heather Tiffany: The bond vote for it went out in 2004. So in 2004, Portland voters granted us $4 million, and the library agreed to raise matching funds. That’s how it started – and yay, in 2009, we’ve got 3 million and change raised. Which is enough to legitimately start the project.

We’ll keep going with the fund raising as we begin phase 1 of the construction. As we’ve gotten a plan finalized and it becomes more of a reality, people get excited about it again.

FP: What is the major theme of the new development?

HT: The idea is – it’s a big building, which is great, but it needs a lot more usable space. In some places, theres a lot of curvy walls and alcoves and holes in the floor – things that make it hard to put books on the ground.

It’s also a very uninviting building, as it stands now. We want to be respectful of the place it has in Portland and the history of Portland architecture, but we hear that a lot from the public.

FP: It’s not especially politically correct, but one of the biggest complaints about any library is that it essentially becomes a homeless shelter during the day.

HT: The best thing in the world about the library is that we’re the last bastion of democracy. Our job is to serve the public, so if you come in here and act right – you’re going to be served. That’s not going to change.

FP: Have you found yourselves designing around that at all?

HT: Well, that said, the point of much of the redesign is to lay it out so things are more safe and welcoming. In fact, we’ll make every effort not to be more exclusive, but we will set it up in a way that makes everybody happier, more comfortable. People will be able to go straight to their space to do their thing.

One of the things about the way it’s set up now that I think is really very bad, to get to our children’s room you have to go through the main floor, down the stairs, past the public restrooms and a long, dark hallway. That’s scary when you’re eight years old! That kind of thing will be solved.

FP: One of the things that has floated around in many of the different plans is a cafe of some sort.

HT: There’s a cafe, and this is one of those things that is split into both camps – part is funded, part is not. The cafe will be facing the street, and we will have seating right away so that you can run across the street to Zara’s or the public markethouse and come right back with something to eat while you work. But the second part is the kitchen, and we’re not sure about that yet – if it does happen, we would find a local company that wanted to run it.

A major idea behind this new design was to put noisy things together and quiet things together, so that everybody gets the best use. So the cafe, the public computing, teen area and the lending desk are all next to eachother – those are very high-energy areas. Upstairs will be the quieter spot.

FP: Is there anything about the new layout that will be particularly welcoming to college students?

HT: In some ways, the biggest advantage we can give college students has already come – we recently implemented free wireless, and that’s been a huge success.

One of the things that happens to people now is that, especially if you’re not from Portland, you walk in the door and have absolutely no idea how or where to do what you need to do. You can see the confusion on their faces. Yet we have a reference desk and a collection that make it much easier to do good research and paper-writing.

I remember when I was in college my university had a horrible library – decent collection, but it was not laid out well at all. And as a result, I didn’t use it nearly as much as I should have.

FP: So you’ve been camping out at the entrance and observing peoples’ habits?

HT: This is actually an area where the American Library Association and other organizations have done a lot of research. And we’ve held community meetings throughout the entire process – our last one is on March 4, in fact.

FP: But with more people doing the their research online, you must be looking toward becoming more digitally-oriented…

HT: It’s funny – in one sense, yes. Libraries have to constantly think about the way people get information, and we have to serve the needs of the public and get them whatever media they’re trying to get. But in another way, and this is one way I’m impressed with the new design, is that it welcomes change. It’s set up so that when things change, we’ll be much able to adapt this space to however people need to use it.

I suppose if we came to a place where libraries were irrelevent, we’d have a lot to worry about.

FP: Do you see that possibility at all, with something like Google Books?

HT: Google does not believe in freedom of information and access for everybody – it’s just not their priority. That is what we do, that’s our mission – to make sure every single person can get what they need, art and information, to make their life what it needs to be. There are services that have aspects of that, but no replacement.

More Tantalizing New Features

Teen Center – one of the 3 new entrances to the library will drop teenagers directly into a special teen library with dedicated workspaces and computers.

Children’s Library – no longer relegated to the basement, the kid’s section will be on the main floor and feature a playplace, story center, and a place to stash strollers.

Open Late – The Rines Auditorium will expand by 30%, and additional meeting rooms and an art gallery will be accessible independent of the rest of the library. The new flexibility will allow parts of the library to be open for evening performances and first Friday art walks.

Hello, Times Square – One of the most glaring and yet unfunded aspects of the new plan is a giant video monitor on the Congress St. facade that will project messages and video out over Monument Square. The plan is to advertise the library and local events, but also to provide a public screening of fun things, like Presidential innaugerations, and vital information during emergencies.

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