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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Overcast
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The renovated Madison Central Library embraces the 21st century
Fun meets function
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Credit:Joseph Engle

Madison's Central Library houses a wealth of history, not only in books, but in beams, bookends and bubblers. Yet when the renovated space makes its public debut on Saturday, Sept. 21, nearly two years after it closed for its makeover, the focus will shift to the future.

The day features a ribbon-cutting with Mayor Paul Soglin (9 a.m.), a reading by award-winning British author Jojo Moyes (7 p.m., reservation required), live music (10 a.m.-5 p.m.) and other activities that celebrate the library's forward-looking approach to learning, community building and creative cross-pollination. The most telltale sign of the 21st century may be the space's updated appearance, which includes influential features from the worlds of architecture, interior design and environmental engineering.

The previous Central Library was unveiled in June of 1965, replacing a 1906 model that served just 23,000 people. With two additional floors to accommodate a much larger book collection, plus an emphasis on accessibility for disabled visitors, it was hailed "the Jewel of West Mifflin Street," according to Bob Kann, author of All Their Ways Are Helping Ways: Stories From the History of Madison Public Library. It was cutting-edge at the time, but its age became increasingly apparent as Madison embraced digital technology, according to Tana Elias, the library's digital services manager.

"We talked to lots of people in the community during our strategic planning process...and found out they have lots of different learning styles, and that they want to become better users of technology, even if they don't necessarily have an iPad or a particular software program," she says.

As a result, the new space at 201 W. Mifflin St. has tech tools that are integrated into the building, such as iPads mounted in the teen area and tools that can be checked out, like videocameras and laptops. Plus, there are 85 computer stations (up from 31 at the old library) and a lab where visitors can learn how to use Photoshop, build websites, create videogames and much more.

But the renovation doesn't just represent a growing collection of digital materials. It shows how libraries' function has evolved.

Traci Lesneski, the remodeled library's lead architect, says the old space reflected a major goal of 1960s libraries: keeping visitors' noses in books.

"The idea was to focus the individual on the book. For example, the old library had the typical split windows from that time period, which didn't let in daylight and 'distractions' from outside," she says. "Connecting people with the books and encouraging them to contemplate what they were reading in solitude -- that was more important than connecting them with their surroundings, which matters much more to us these days."

Now there are huge high-efficiency windows that draw natural light into many areas of the building while deflecting rays that can damage both library materials and human skin. And there are tons of places for people to connect with each other, from a new auditorium to an art gallery and a Chocolaterian cafe.

'Transformative' design

Lesneski calls Central Library's new design scheme "transformative," and an affirmation that modern libraries are learning centers where people can dive deep into a hobby or prepare for a new career. The building's new aesthetic incorporates sprawling sight lines, geometric elements like a high waffle ceiling, and an overall feeling of airiness. All of these features are hallmarks of Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle, the Minneapolis-based firm where Lesneski works. The company specializes in remodeling libraries and has made news for transforming worn-out spaces, such as an abandoned Wal-Mart, into architectural showpieces (see sidebar). In short, the firm has helped define what "contemporary" looks like in this decade.

Of course, the web has played a role as well.

"One thing informing library design is that Americans' tastes are broadening and becoming more sophisticated," Lesneski says. "I think that's because we're able to interact with so many kinds of visuals through the Internet. A more streamlined, modern and even European aesthetic might not have been comfortable for a community like Madison a few decades ago."

With this in mind, the new library emphasizes openness, both in terms of design and the way visitors interact and move through the space. It also features clean lines and colors that have a European vibe, Lesneski says.

"Actually, the color scheme is inspired by Madison, especially the lakes, but people have been telling us it feels kind of European," she says with a laugh.

Another local reference is found in movable wooden screens decorated with abstract carvings.

"It's an abstracted view of plants that grow in the Madison area," Lesneski says.

Artistic and highly functional, the screens let the library rent out event space in certain parts of the building without giving after-hours visitors free rein of the place. They double as gates, directing guests to spaces such as a third-floor reception room and a rooftop patio flanked by solar panels and sedum plants. They also achieve one of the remodeling project's other goals: making the library more adaptable.

Silence no more

The adaptability theme extends to the lower-level children's area, which is dotted with gumdrop-like chairs that can be arranged in numerous configurations. Many pieces of furniture are on wheels so they can be pushed to new locations with ease. Meeting rooms contain movable floor tiles whose carpet looks like fuzzy grass.

"The design team took the notion that seating could be fun and took it to a new level," says Jane Roughen, the library's acting youth services coordinator. "And almost everything in here -- the furniture, the floors -- is extremely durable and easy to clean."

Other features encourage cognitive flexibility, especially in the form of imaginative thought. "Caves" beneath a staircase light up when children enter them. One even has a peephole so kids can spy on people exiting a nearby elevator. Murals by Derrick Buisch pay homage to storytelling, as does one of the library's oldest pieces of art, a bronze statue known as Wildflower. Encircled by tiny rockers, this childlike figure seems poised to spin a tale for a group of kids. And then there are the books. Many of their covers face outward, drawing young readers into the space with bright colors and intriguing titles.

A meadow was the inspiration for the children's area, Lesneski says, but she and her associates didn't take the theme literally. Large circles intersect on the floor, mimicking how light dapples a pond. White lighting fixtures by Lampa form unusual shapes that invite multiple interpretations, much like real clouds do. And there's a set of wooden chairs that look like nests, designed by UW art professor Tom Loeser. Made to hold pairs of readers, especially a parent and child, they are both sculptural and practical.

Lesneski notes how the whole library fosters relationships between another type of pair: librarians and visitors.

"The old library had these large, monumental service desks where you'd quietly approach the librarian and wait for assistance behind a huge barrier," she explains. "Now there are spaces for more side-by-side collaboration with the librarian, who engages with you in a much more personal way. There are still places to find peace and quiet in the building, but libraries aren't silent places anymore."

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