Assignment 3: Evaluating the Library as a Place
Renton Downtown Library
For this assignment, I will be investigating the Renton Downtown Library that sits on top of the Cedar River. This library is an architectural marvel, as it’s one of the few public libraries built across a river. The Renton Public Library System had a rich history for its two library branches. The first Carnegie library was built in downtown Renton in 1914. In the early 20th century, the population of Renton increased dramatically due to the war efforts. A study conducted by the Washington State Library found that the city’s population had increased by 257 percent between 1940 and 1950. (Stewart). The King County Library System built the Renton Highlands Branch in 1947, and was given to the Renton Public Library System.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Renton residents often discussed about merging with the King County Library System, but the bills and votes were usually defeated. The main reason is the costs and upkeep for Renton residents to contribute to the library services and maintenance costs. Due to this factor, Renton residents do not qualify for library service with The King County Library System or The Seattle Public Library System, unless the work, attend school, or own property outside the City of Renton. Library materials were outdated and limited. As early as 1962 State Librarian Dorothy Doyle questioned whether a community with a tax base of less than $100,000 could support an independent branch library system, and the recession of 2008 exacerbated that challenge. In February 2010, voters made the decision to annex to the King County Library System. (Stewart).
The library site was chosen because it was the few spots available at that time. Only city-owned sites were considered for the library site. In the 1960s, The Greater Renton Chamber of Commerce and the League of Woman Voters teamed up and created a vision of a civic complex that became very attractive to Renton residents. Renton residents were captivated by the prize-winning design for a new library that would straddle the river, near a New City Hall, senior center, community auditorium, and park grounds. (Stewart). The building was built in 1966, and was built for its modernity and innovations. Some innovative features were a telephone-intercom system, a listening unit, and water-lights to highlight the river at night. Due to the building’s design, the majority of the collections are housed on the east side of the building due to their weight. In the original plans, air conditioning was omitted due to the costs. Central air systems were implemented decades later. Given the brief history of the library building, we can examine the library’s architecture, design, and functionality.
The Renton Downtown Library is about 22,000 square feet. About 4,000 square feet are staff only areas. There are many windows on the north, east, and south sides of the building. This creates a well lit and open feeling for library patrons. The staff area consists of offices, work areas, public restrooms and storage areas in the northwest section of the building. The southwest section of the building contains the children’s department and its collection. The whole central parts of the building are mainly service desks, reading areas, and computer terminals. Computers were rearranged and spread apart to maximize privacy for its users. The circulation desk is located in the central area by the front doors, this cause foot traffic to be congested if patrons were to enter or exiting the building by bypassing a service line. The central area of the library cannot support heavy loads or weight in the central area.
There is only one public conference room that the public can use. However, it’s considered an inadequate size for the building and community. The whole east side of the building is filled with the main collection, the fiction, non-fiction, media, periodicals, special collections and teen department. Since it was annexed to the King County Library System, newer titles were added to the collection, however due to space issue, the new items were limited. Due to space issue, the collection is not an adequate size to serve its surrounding community. Most library patrons placed holds on popular or heavily requested library materials. On busier days, the east side of the library gets too crowded and noisy. Library staff mentioned that there are poor sightlines to the majority of the collections, quiet areas, and public restrooms in the library, even though library staff are located in the central part of the building. This is a security and safety issue, as the library noticed an increase of theft and suspicious activities in these ‘blind spots’.
The library building is a one-of-a-kind architectural marvel, as it spans across the Cedar River and acts as a bridge between both sides of the river. However, due to this location, being located away from the downtown Renton core, and behind a huge parking lot, and surrounded by large trees, new residents and visitors often have a hard time locating the downtown library building. The building is in need of extensive seismic, electrical, plumbing, and heating/cooling system upgrades in order to function as a modern library and bring the building current with existing codes. (City of Renton). The residents of Renton are currently in the process of looking for a new library site within the downtown Renton area. The time and funds needed to renovate and remodel the existing building to be used as a library structure far exceeds the costs than to build a new building. The new library building will be smaller in square footage because it does not require a large staff area. City of Renton will keep the iconic current library building and converted it for public use, such as an art gallery, events center, or a meeting facility. Overall, the current library building is a great architectural masterpiece, but does not function well as a library building.
“Renton Public Library Master Plan Study 2008-2013.” City of Renton. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2012. <rentonwa.gov/uploadedFiles/Living/CS/LIBRARY/RENTONmasterplan1.pdf>.
Stewart, Elizabeth. “Renton has long history of supporting libraries in its downtown area.” Renton Reporter. N.p., 2 June 2011. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.rentonreporter.com/community/123033548.html>.
“What is the Future of Renton Library Buildings?.” City of Renton. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2012. <rentonwa.gov/living/default.aspx?id=2140>.