Plainsboro Public Library

Branching Out

Hardworking graphics add punch to the community-centered design of the 21st century library.

Think of a public library, and what comes to mind? Perhaps the red-brick blocks of our youth, where fluorescent lighting cast a yellowish glow and anything above a whisper was strictly taboo? Fast-forward to today, and a slew of newly built libraries are conversation starters, awash in natural light, with vibrant colors and patterns beckoning card-holders to linger and explore.

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, revolutionized library design when it opened in 2004. With its unconventional steel-and-glass architecture, colorful interior design, and inviting public spaces, the 400,000-sq.-ft. building reimagined the public library as an iconic destination for learning and lounging. Across the pond, London’s Idea Stores—a retail-inspired concept for libraries by architect David Adjaye—take cues from their fashionable neighbors, with an emphasis on transparency. After the first Idea Store opened in 2002, library traffic was three times higher than the two libraries it had replaced. Adjaye has since been tapped to design branch libraries in Washington, D.C.

What’s driving this sea change in library design from staid to stellar?

“Things are changing so fast and people’s expectations of a library and what it needs to be and who it serves are all very dynamic,” says Richard Jensen, vice president of Will Bruder + Partners (Phoenix). When the architecture firm conceptualized the first of three libraries for the City of Phoenix, building cookie-cutter branches was out of the question, and community involvement was key.

“We decided that each community should have a say at the beginning of the process in what they wanted their library to be, then we hired the best architect the budget would allow and got out of the way,” says Shera Farnham, assistant city librarian for the City of Phoenix.

As a result, collections have gotten smaller and the libraries have focused on the most sought-after items for each community, reducing the amount of shelving by about a third. More computers and computer training rooms have been added, open flexible spaces abound, and colorful, comfortable furnishings appeal to all ages.

More emphasis is also being placed on signage and environmental graphics. And it’s not just the designers and architects who are pushing for it. When a bond allowed the Plainsboro Public Library in New Jersey to build larger digs, Library Director Jinny Baeckler made sure there was enough money in the budget for graphics. “I didn’t want to gloss over signage,” Baeckler explains. Circulation rose 13% when a new signage system was installed in the old library, so she understood the value of helping visitors—particularly the community’s large non-English-speaking Asian population—get where they needed to go easily

In Vinyl Veritas: Plainsboro Public Library 

Not long after the Plainsboro Public Library opened its doors in 1993, it became clear that an upgrade would be needed. “There was no community room, no place to gather, no open reading areas, just stacks of books,” explains Library Director Jinny Baeckler. Additionally, the population was exploding, the Internet was taking off, and the 1,400-sq.-ft. space was poorly signed, too small to accommodate the number of people it served, and technologically unprepared to handle the Internet.

When a bond allowed the library to construct a new building, Baeckler had some pretty clear ideas about how the new 45,000-sq.-ft. space could better serve the community. “We wanted a science center because science education is miserable in this country, a dedicated art library to bring quality art to the community, and a health education center where people can calmly access sound information,” she explains. The library also needed plenty of computer table space with easy plug-in capabilities, because most people would rather use their own laptops. It also boasts an Internet café, community auditorium, and outdoor reading garden and terraces.

Brian Brindisi, principal-in-charge of the project for Poulin + Morris (New York), also recognized the importance of a clear, comprehensive wayfinding system. Lessons learned from the old library included the need for bold, legible signage that’s visible from across the entire space, with elements large enough that staff can point to them from information desks. Color and material choices were driven by the need for a system that’s easy to maintain at minimal cost. Due to the library’s large segment of non-English speaking users, the program needed to be “immediate, intuitive, and visually universal while remaining timeless and in keeping with the community-based mission of the 21st century library,” says Brindisi.

Poulin + Morris devised a color-coded wayfinding program using green, red, and yellow to activate the space and relied heavily on vinyl to satisfy budget constraints. Stack ends, for example, are clearly labeled in color-coded vertical vinyl lettering. TheSans typeface in upper- and lowercase letters is used throughout the signage program for ease of readability. And information desks gain graphic appeal via a 3form pattern with vinyl oversized typography.

The library’s glass stairwell and balcony rail overlooking the main reading room also created a unique graphic opportunity. “We knew a vision barrier would be required on the glass in order to meet code requirements, and we wanted to take a very non-traditional approach that celebrates the written word,” Brindisi explains. In a community-based gesture, library users were invited to submit first sentences of their favorite books in the original language in which the books were written. About 300 first sentences were printed in frosted vinyl and applied to the glass, resulting in a sandblasted look. Those first sentences also appear as a typographic backdrop on the exterior monolith sign.

“What I thought was unique and one of the more joyful parts of the interior was the use of vinyl,” says Peter Haas, senior project manager for fabricator Design Communications Ltd. However, fabricating and installing all that vinyl within a short, two-month time timeframe was challenging. Gaps in the railings had to be carefully measured to ensure no words were broken up during installation. And for some signage elements, particularly the information desks, three or four layers of vinyl had to be applied, leaving no room for error.

Although Baeckler lost her bid for ceiling-hung supermarket-type signs—the lighting system precluded their installation—she is thrilled with the results. And the 1,000-plus daily visitors are a good indication that the building is serving the community’s needs.

“The sign program is very striking and well integrated; it hits you as soon as you enter the building,” she says. “The designers really listened to what we were saying, and what they came back with was beyond-belief fabulous.”

--By Jenny Reising, segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011


Client:  Plainsboro Public Library

Location:  Plainsboro, N.J.

Design:  Poulin + Morris

Design Team:  Brian Brindisi (design director); Laura Gainick, Andy Schoonmaker (designers)

Fabrication:  Design Communications Ltd.

Consultants:  BKSK Architects (project architects)

Photos:  Jeffrey Totaro

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