Reading outside the box: Albemarle’s Northside Library caters to a modern crowd

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

The new Northside Library, on Rio Road, says anything but “Shhhh.” From the outside, it’s positively jaunty, with aqua-blue and goldenrod-yellow accents dressing up the brick exterior, and surprising diagonals playing against the verticals of corrugated metal. One’s eyes travel to the tall entranceway and the single word, spelled in midcentury-style metal letters, on the overhang: LIBRARY.

This attractive, standalone building is a far cry from Northside’s former home in Albemarle Square. That rented facility opened in 1991, said Library Director John Halliday, “and almost immediately became the busiest branch in the system.”

Well-used though it may have been, its patrons did have definite ideas about how it could be better, which they expressed in public meetings during the design phase for the new library. “People wanted it to be brighter, with more cheerful colors,” said Halliday, “and with more natural light.” The new facility, which opened March 16, amply fulfills those wishes. It’s defined by a center hallway, a yellow-and-blue-painted atrium that runs front to back through the building and allows sunlight to pour in through big windows on both ends.

The corridor’s extra-tall ceiling is a bonus of the building’s having been repurposed (it was formerly a warehouse). It also connects the front and rear parking areas, drawing patrons toward a single interior doorway to the book collection. “Incorporating the bold yellow color for the entire length of the space ties these two building entrance points together,” said James Shook, principal with HBM Architects, the Cleveland firm that oversaw the conversion.

At 30,000 square feet, this library has twice the space as its predecessor. The book collection has only grown by 5 percent, though—it’s the specialized spaces that command so much extra room. There’s a study/waiting area near the front entrance, a big public meeting space that can hold nearly 150 people, a special section just for Young Adult literature and a quiet room with modern furniture grouped around a fireplace. There’s even a maker space with a 3D printer, available for any tinkerer’s use.

Moving through the library, patrons are led from one zone to the next by colorful patterns in the carpeting. “Each specific area for adults, teens, children, etc., has its own identity,” said Shook, “but still works together to create the overall palette for a cohesive design.”

In the kids’ section, those carpeting patterns echo rainbow-colored glass panels, and big windows let in plenty of sun—but walls keep the young patrons sonically separated from adults. “One of the complaints [at Albemarle Square] was the kids’ section was noisy,” said Halliday. “Here they can make more noise.”

Accommodating reality seems to be a theme here—you can pick up holds at a drive-thru window, munch snacks in the corridor and plug your phone into any study table. Halliday calls it a “21st century public library.”

So far, users seem to agree. “The first week it was open, use went up more than 45 percent,” Halliday said proudly.

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