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Renovated Carnegie will blur the borders between library and bookstore

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

If it was a phenomenon of the late 20th century that chain bookstores became more like Andrew Carnegie's first great American libraries, with sofas and chairs gathered around the hearth, it is a phenomenon of the nascent 21st that American libraries are becoming more like bookstores.

In EDGE studio's reinvention of Carnegie Library in Oakland, the first floor's historic architecture becomes a backdrop for contemporary elements, such as this large glass panel that identifies the librarian's station. The sign also could carry electronic information.
Click photo for larger image.

For more information and images, check out the library's Web site,

From Massachusetts to Minnesota to Utah, libraries old and new, on city and suburban streets and college campuses, are luring patrons with coffee shops, comfy furniture and cozy reading nooks.

Out with the "NO EATING AND DRINKING" signs; in with the espresso machines and pastry counters.

Would you like a cappuccino with that new best seller, madam?

How about a Danish?

In Pittsburgh, the $2.8 million makeover of Carnegie Library in Oakland is underway: Let there be coffees and cakes, juices and bagels, teas and muffins, and many more things our grandparents never dared dream of.

Let there also be minimum desecration of the library's historic interior, and maximum imagination let loose therein.

Wishes granted all by EDGE studio's clever redesign, in collaboration with Maya Design and other partners and a host of library employees headed by Director Herb Elish.

Yes, there will be changes, but it appears they will be changes for the better -- ones that will make the library a more accessible and inviting place. When the renovation is complete a year from now, patrons will be able not only to buy coffee and a Danish, but to carry them (weather permitting) into an outdoor reading room in a bamboo garden created from previously unused exterior space within the building. It is one of several smart solutions EDGE has devised to bring a sense of modernity and freshness to the library without obliterating its essential historic character.

"The goal was not to alter the architecture in any significant way," said EDGE principal Gary Carlough. "We're moving walls but not putting scars in the building."

At the same time, there was a desire to make the new work not look temporary, to make it look and be substantial and sustainable into the future.

Part of the solution is a series of large glass panels just below the ceiling, that should neither hide nor overpower the original architecture but rather blend with it, possibly weaving in a new thread of electronic information.

The information panels, mounted at four locations established by identifying the most prominent sight lines, will be "as ephemeral and transparent as possible," Carlough said, with fixed graphic elements as well as plasma screens or LED displays announcing book discussions and other events, pending library board approval.

"We'll have to be more like a newspaper and decide every day what we want to tell" visitors, Elish said. "If there's a crisis in North Korea, we'll immediately have a display of Korean books."

The renovation's overarching goal is to make the library feel comfortable, not confusing or intimidating.

"You would not design this place today if you were going to design a library," Elish said. "Libraries are open, and this has been organized [historically] for the benefit of librarians."

The makeover includes a ditching of the Dewey decimal system in favor of the more intuitive, A-to-Z organization of the Library of Congress system, which requires moving every book, periodical, musical score, CD, DVD -- in short, everything in the collection.

The first floor will offer popular and topical materials, such as cooking and do-it-yourself books, as well as new fiction and non-fiction. The main circulation desk is gone; in that central area will be shelves, display tables and an information desk that puts librarians in a conspicuous place. The room to the right, formerly devoted to quiet, casual reading, will house the cafe and the entrance to a new elevator. The room to the left will hold biographies, classics, large-print and African-American books as well as several groupings of comfortable chairs and tables.

The new outdoor reading room and adjacent, enclosed periodicals room lie just beyond, also to the left of the central room. Passing though and dividing them is a glass bridge that will carry patrons from the central room to the existing corridor that links the library and Carnegie Museums -- making a new connection between two of the library's historic spaces.

"The idea was to get the circulation to flow in the space, and it was a way of increasing the real estate," Carlough said. "There's no way to engage the outdoors, and this was a way to make that happen."

In the new reading room/bamboo garden, "you'll have a sense of dislocation. There will be some ambiguity as to whether you're inside or outside. The intention was to blur the boundary."

The non-invasive bamboo plants eventually will grow to 25 feet. The floor of the outdoor room will be made of ipe (pronounced ee-pay) wood, a sustainable Brazilian product that also will become the floor, wall and ceiling of the adjacent periodical room.

On the second floor, the great central reading room and main reference desk remain, modestly reorganized. Rooms to the left of it, formerly housing the music and art departments, will contain a reading room, the audio-visual department and the library's collection of musical scores. Rooms to the right, now home to the Pennsylvania Department and microfilm area, will house the nonfiction collection, government documents and a consumer health section.

The Pennsylvania Department will share the third floor with the related microfilm and periodicals section, the Job and Career Education Center, a PC Center for learning and honing computer skills, and a new public meeting room. Outside, there will be no changes to the historic landscape, the library having wisely given up its pursuit of carving a small parking lot out of its grounds.

More good news: Elish and the architects will seek library board approval for a new entrance from Carnegie Institute's own parking lot, up through the glass-floored stacks at the library's rear. That parking lot will be more heavily used by library patrons with the eventual demise of the Schenley Plaza lot.

When the plaza is made over into an urban park, there could be a happy symbiosis between the library and the park, as has happened with the New York Public Library and the adjacent, revived Bryant Park.

Carnegie Library remains open throughout construction. Most of the first floor, where almost all of the physical redesign is taking place, is off-limits, but the books it held have been moved upstairs, along with checkout and other services.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

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