Alice McKean Young Library, 2016, Houston Texas. Photo: Charles Davis Smith.

Marcel Merwin is a graduate of Rice Architecture and a designer at Metalab. Gathered in front of a bank of computers, four teens watch a Youtube series on animation. On the other side of the glass, a rambunctious group of toddlers laugh and play with their toys while their parents and guardians look on, some reading, some just enjoying the time to relax. These moments are unexceptional to some, but to me they speak a larger story of the necessity to have community spaces like the Alice McKean Young Neighborhood Library. I found Shajuana Jones and Eric Ashton sitting in front of the expansive windows looking out onto Griggs Road. For Jones, the Young Library offers a space for her to focus on her work away from home. “I tried studying at home, but then I got to the point where I wouldn’t focus much at home, so that’s when I started seeking out a library to go to. ... I like the study rooms because when you really need to focus, you can go in there and it’s really quiet.” For many people, the first thing they think of when defining the word "library" is books. However, for the twenty-first-century library, that definition has to change to encompass a much broader idea of what can be provided by a public asset. The recently completed Young Library is an example of the twenty-first-century library. Designed by Perkins + Will and completed in 2016, the Young Library took a long and winding road to reach the point of being a true asset to the community. Perkins + Will’s first design was not successfully carried through. In 2010, a major budget crises halted the project, shelving the design for good. In addition, community members felt that the process and scheme had been produced without the right voices being heard. After a restart in 2012, Perkins + Will committed to community integrated design, working with community members and stakeholders to produce a library both by, and for, the people of the neighborhood. From 2012 to February 2014, community meetings were held to engage a deeper discussion of what the needs of the neighborhood were.

Young Library Floor Plan. Courtesy Perkins + Will.

 

The intent and focus of these meetings is key to the success of the Young Library. Three major themes came out of the discussions, as well as formal design considerations. First, the library should be focused on the community, representing its aspirations and desires for healthy space. Second, the building should act as a beacon of the community, marking the site as a central space for the neighborhood. Finally, the library should be intergenerational, offering resources for all visitors, from retirees to pre-readers. The conversation of form was an important selling point for the area. During a conversation with John Strasius, Associate Principal, and Meredith Hunt, Project Architect, John recounted how the first round design was described as “austere and boxy.” Many members of the community called for curves and organic shapes, representative of the dynamic and diverse community that the library was to serve. The Young Library benefits from using the public interest design methodology by promoting civic engagement as a positive force for design. From Hunt’s perspective, Perkins + Will produced a “much better building because of the community input” and “end[ed] up with a building that everybody is excited about.” This method allows ownership to be spread to the community, not just the public agencies that fund the library. A common question asked is what does a library do in the twenty-first century? The Young library can be considered a stellar example of how to answer the question. The traditional ideal of a library is a provider of books but I would counter this by saying a library’s role is to provide resources of all kinds. The OMA proposal for the Seattle Central Library stated a clear manifesto for this shift, “Unless the Library transforms itself wholeheartedly into an information storehouse ... its unquestioned loyalty to the book will undermine the Library’s plausibility at the moment of its potential apotheosis.” [1] The Young Library provides books, DVDs, computer resources, and even a maker space for rapid prototyping. Non-physical resources like language classes, employment help, and veteran services are also held at the library, fulfilling the thematic goals set forth by the community. In the current socio-political climate, it provides a truly public space for the Greater Third Ward and Southeast Houston that isn’t owned by any private corporation, but by the public. To Jones, the Young Library is “a good asset to the community, cause it was real rough over here so the library kinda made things settle, like kids have a place to come, instead of just being out on the streets.” The Young Library’s location is relevant to its success as well. Situated next to the community YMCA, across from a new mixed-income housing development, and just down the street from the METRORail stop, the Young Library helped catalyze the development of the area. Part of the design consideration dealt with community access from the surrounding areas. Perkins + Will, with input from the community, strategically placed two main entrances into the library to facilitate the multi-modal transport options many community members use. The neighboring KIPP School benefits from a direct access to the library for its students, increasing safety and ease of use.

Interior of Alice McKean Young Library. Photo: Charles Davis Smith.

 

This push towards multi-use library spaces and public-interest design has precedents across the world. A clear example of this is the MVRDV designed Spijkenisse Library, aka Book Mountain.[2] Their library focuses on the book as a main driver for design, as the city prides itself on its low illiteracy rate and love of books. Using public-focused programming like a cafe, chess room, meeting spaces, and an environmental education center, the library takes into account the multitude of specific needs of the city and foregrounds it in its design and implementation. The Spijkenisse Library is distinct from the Young library in that it is the main city library, while the Young Library is simply a neighborhood library. This distinction is important to foreground the costs and scale associated with the libraries. It’s rare to find an example of innovative design at the local neighborhood scale, especially when a central library is present. For Houston, the Young Library should exemplify the future for the library. Low density and distinct neighborhood boundaries define communities that work independently from each other. For these communities, organized gathering is often not possible except in the public sphere, especially in low-income areas. The library provides a location for community-oriented engagement, filling the role of Third Place for the given neighborhood.[3] Houston is too big to have a single community gathering space, so by utilizing the existing library system --- a multi-nodal network designed to be closer to neighborhood-scale --- each location can act as a hub for social activity. The Houston Public Library system is currently composed of four types of libraries (from largest to smallest): the Full Service Library, the Neighborhood Library, the Express Library, and the TechLink Library. Wendy Heger, Principal at Page Architects and former Assistant Director of Planning & Facilities for the Houston Public Library, believes that “people come to the library not to consume knowledge, but to create knowledge.” This mentality is seen throughout the Young library’s services. The opportunity to freely express ideas without fear of retaliation is a hallmark of the American public sphere. Built into the American Library Association (ALA) is a defense of free speech and community engagement. Policies III and IV of the Library Bill of Rights [4] state that "III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment" and "IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas." Empowering community members to actively influence the library in their community can bring about cultural shifts in attitudes and utilization of the system. Not all neighborhoods are created equal, and this means the needs of each neighborhood are different. Doubling down on the nodal network of library buildings allows for specialization and curation in each instance. Designed for the specific needs and wants of the neighborhood increases the ability for the libraries to respond to unique expectations and goals.

Alice McKean Young Library - Houston Texas. Photo: Charles Davis Smith.

 

The benefits of connecting to the Houston-wide library network allows access to specialized nodes without requiring all nodes to be designed for that particular response. In some cases, the traditional model of high-capacity book storage might be the most important feature of a library. For other libraries, that feature might be ESL resources or inter-generational engagement programming. Dixon Library, one of the Houston Public Library’s smallest libraries, was initially scheduled to be renovated into an express library, says John Middleton, Assistant Director of Spaces and Communications. However, through community input and surveys they found that the needs of the neighborhood were better met through a restructuring as a TechLink library that focused exclusively on providing tech-based resources to the community. Reinforcing the narrative of Third Place is the 2015 Houston Public Library Masterplan, produced by Page Architects. The year-long study looked at multiple issues, including statistical analysis of the usage of the existing libraries. The study found that rather than simply using the library they had closest to them, users would travel to the library that had the services they need.[6] Moving towards specialized spaces can produce a stronger nodal-network without compromising the basic services at each library. Now two years after opening, the Alice Mckean Young Library can be seen as the beginning of Houston Public Library’s launch into the twenty-first century. There are still significant hurdles left for the library system to negotiate. For instance, why are the majority of the libraries closed on Sunday, potentially the most active day for a library? John Middleton cited funding shortages. All signs point towards no change to this problem in the future, and in fact seems to skew towards decreasing hours at many of the libraries.[7] Still, both the overall Houston Public Library masterplan and the Young Library are examples of the forward thinking, exciting approaches to tackling the enormous network that is the Houston Public Library system. Building a library for everyone is a nearly impossible task, but as Maddie Freeborn, a student at the Energy Institute High School, says of the Young Library, “Over here they have a teen and a kids section. ... They have a section for everybody.” These first steps hint to the positive growth of Houston Public Library as they continue into their second century.

Interior of Alice McKean Young Library. Photo: Charles Davis Smith.

 

Young Library Building Credits
Architecture: Perkins + Will
Landscape Design: Knudson, LP
MEP Consultant: MEP IT Engineers
Structural Engineers: Henderson+Rogers Engineers
Civil Engineers: Jaymark Engineering Corporation
Technology Consultant: 4b Technology Group, LLC
Construction: Gilbane Building Company
Project Management: City of Houston, General Services Department

Notes and Works Cited
[1] Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Seattle Public Library Proposal, 1999, pp4.
[2] Book Mountain is interesting in its own right because it became the orienting building for a series of housing developments by MDRDV created to provide social housing after the economic crisis, thus creating exactly the neighborhood typology that the public library system works for.
[3] Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase "third places" derives from considering our homes to be the "first" places in our lives, and our work places the "second." “The Great Good Place”, Ray Oldenburg, 1989.
[4] "Library Bill of Rights", American Library Association, June 30, 2006.
[5] The Houston Public Library system is currently composed of four typical types of libraries (from largest to smallest): the Full Service Library, the Neighborhood Library, the Express Library, and the TechLink Library. Middleton, John. (2018, Dec 6). Personal Interview
[6] “Masterplan 2015”, Houston Public Library, 2015.
[7] “Masterplan 2015”, Houston Public Library, 2015, p79.