The Boston Public Library (BPL) has two faces-and one of them is getting a serious face lift. Its first, older and more recognizable face is the facade of the historic McKim Building, home to the majestic Bates Hall reading room and host to scores of Bostonian weddings. The McKim building-dubbed a “palace for the people” by architect Charles Follen McKim-was built in the late 1800s, and has presided over Copley Square ever since.
The BPL’s other face, which looks out at Boylston Street, is decidedly less grand, and a person seeing it for the first time would have a hard time identifying it as part of the BPL. In fact, the only noticeable indications on the concrete face of the Johnson Building are the colorful signs advertising its coming renovations.
The Johnson Building was designed in the ’60s and opened its doors in 1972. Now, more than 40 years later, its gray, fortress-like exterior is the antithesis of the direction in which libraries everywhere are moving-toward a more social, inclusive environment that incorporates rather than shuts out its surroundings.
The renovations, the first of which began about a month and a half ago, aim to recreate the Johnson Building as a space that invites people inside and fosters creativity and collaboration along with research. The BPL follows a growing number of large urban libraries that have made similar changes in recent years, such as the Seattle Public Library and the Chicago Public Library.
Director of Library Services for the BPL Michael Colford attributes this wave of renovations to both the changing nature of sharing information and the simultaneous realization on the part of many library administrations that the structures of their buildings are incongruous with the services they want to provide.
“There was a lot of library construction money in the ’50s and ’60s, and now those buildings need updating,” Colford said. “In addition, library services have changed so much that the buildings people have are substandard now and aren’t really suited for the way people use public space now.”
In the case of the BPL, the idea for the renovations started with a desire to upgrade its children’s library. Although it was the first library to designate a space specifically for children, the resources currently available at the BPL for the very young are far behind what should be expected of a library that size, according to Colford.
After deciding to redesign and relocate the children’s library, however, BPL officials began exploring ways to cater more to teens, in order to get those children who grew up going to the library with their parents interested in coming back as high school students. Eventually, they decided to entirely reinvent the Johnson wing of the library to fit their vision of what they hope the BPL will be.
The renovations will take place on the first floor, the mezzanine level, the second floor, and the lower level of the building. Besides those currently underway on the second floor, further renovations are pending the city budget, which will be available on July 1. Colford says that the release of the budget will determine only when-not if-the renovations can be done, and he is confident the entire project will be completed in about three years.
When the second floor is finished in March of 2015, it will house the new children’s library and a teen space, along with the nonfiction and adult reference sections. The teen space will bring a more social aspect to the library, featuring booths in which to do work with friends, as well as an area called “the lounge,” which will have a large screen for watching movies or playing video games. There will also be a space called “the lab” equipped with technology for recording music and editing audio or video clips. Colford referred to it as a space where kids can “mess around with technology” and said that it fits in well with the “makerspace” movement of libraries today.
By making technology a more central focus of the renovated building, the BPL also hopes to attract a greater portion of people within the 20 to 35 age range, which is often the hardest demographic for libraries to draw in, according to Colford.
“A lot of libraries lose that age group because they go to college and they use their college libraries, and once they graduate from college they’re not really oriented toward libraries,” he said. “They usually come back once they become parents and they bring their kids to the library, but we think there’s an opportunity using technology and cool places to hang out to keep them coming in.”
Despite this new focus on technology, Colford spoke of a desire to re-engage the community that is traditionally the heart and soul of a library-the readers. According to him, this can be difficult for a central library to accomplish due to its size. At the BPL’s branches, the populations are smaller and better-connected, both with each other and with the branch librarians. This connection fosters vibrant conversations about books-something the BPL hopes to bring to its main location by creating spaces for readers and staff to discuss what they’re reading. Colford said that in this way, they hope to fill the role of the old independent book store.
Colford believes the most visually dramatic renovations will be opening up the lobby of the Johnson building to the city and to the rest of the library. Now, the connection between the Johnson building and the McKim building is tucked away on one side of the Johnson lobby. The renovation will widen the connector and knock down several walls within the lobby, making each building more visible from the interior of the other.
Retail space of some sort, possibly a cafe, will be installed at street level, and most of the granite columns in front of the windows of the Johnson building will be removed. The tinted windows, in turn, will be replaced with clear glass-uniting the library with bustling life out on Boylston Street.
“We wanted to make sure that when people came to the Boston Public Library, they knew they were in Boston and they knew they were in the Boston Public Library,” Colford said.
According to Colford, the BPL will always be known for its history as the first public library in America. Their challenge is to create an environment that evokes the future, instead of just history. He hopes that the new Johnson building will spark an excitement in people about the present and the future-the same way the McKim building inspires awe of the past.