Peering down into the three-story cavern of the recently dismantled book retrieval system at the Parkway Central Library is as jarring as it is inspiring. Instinct dictates a sharp stab of reactive skepticism at first glance. Gutting the stacks—an immense shepherd of volumes with the capacity of over one million books that once served as the heart of the 91-year-old library’s circulation system–seems counterintuitive. Without a comprehensive in-house collection of books, how can the great Parkway Central Library, the nexus of which all 54 Free Library branches orbit, assist users and serve its fundamental purpose? The spirit of Parkway Central remains rooted in access to information and rare research material, even if the majority of its general holdings were moved to a remote storage facility in 2013. But the identity and intent of the library is being carefully reconfigured to meet the shifting needs of 21st century cardholders, and the removal of the stacks for public programming is one bold step forward.
Creative public services is nothing new for the Free Library of Philadelphia. On any given day one can step into a branch of FLP and learn sign language, join a yoga group, take a resume-writing class, get help launching a new business, hone one’s culinary skills, and even check out a musical instrument. The list of workshops, activities, and events the Free Library system offers every month is astounding. FLP has met the challenges of dwindling attendance in the last decade with an increased push for public engagement. The dramatic renovation of the stacks at Parkway Central aims to build upon FLP’s commitment to visitor resources as the system redefines the role of the public library.
“This renovation process will open up thousands of square feet of previously closed space to the public, greatly enhancing the customer experience at the Parkway Central Library,” says Alix Gerz, Director of Marketing for the Free Library. “We are thrilled to be able to give back to the public new and vibrant spaces, while continuing to ensure access to all the many materials onsite and offsite as well.”
In 2014, the Free Library received a $25 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, the largest gift in the system’s 120 year history, to help fund and implement the first phase of their Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative. The project’s goal is to increase attendance by softening the experience of the city’s 100-year-old Carnegie libraries and aging Modernist gems with user-centered design. Four neighborhood libraries have received upgrades so far. At Logan Library, new lighting, a reading garden, and self-checkout kiosks were installed. Lovett Memorial Library on Germantown Avenue saw the installation of new elevators, three new reading lounges, and a covered reading porch that looks out onto a newly established park. Along with a healthy dose of reorganizing, a small business resource center was established at Tacony Library in partnership with the Tacony Community Development Corporation. At Lillian Marrero Library in Fairhill, an attractive new glass addition serves as welcoming beacon of light, while providing a sunny reading lounge and ADA access to the stair-heavy limestone behemoth. At a cost of $28 million in renovations for all four libraries, technology and books took a backseat, while upgrades largely focused on redesigning the neighborhood anchors with accessibility and modern standards of comfort in mind.
Back at Parkway Central, three contemporary spaces will rise out of the six floors of demolished stacks. Designed by the architectural firm of Moshe Safdie, the $35 million renovation includes a two-story community and event space, a business resource center, and a 4,000 square-foot center for teens.
The Common is being billed as a collaborative meeting place for researchers, artists, scholars, and makers to brainstorm ideas while utilizing the library’s digital and print resources. The 8,000-square foot area will facilitate speaking engagements, presentations, special exhibitions, and provide the library with a rental space for private events.
The Business Resource and Innovation Center will build on FLP’s annual calendar of 175 business seminars and training sessions with an envisioned incubation space for new business owners and entrepreneurs. There they can work with staff and volunteers to develop executable business plans. The new department will also provide central access to the library’s Regional Foundation Center, the city’s largest public collection of fundraising, institutional advancement, and non-profit management resources.
The Marie and Joseph Field Teen Center is designed to give Philly’s youth a place of their own away from home, where the pressures of food insecurity, street violence, and poverty compound the confusion and alienation of adolescence. Like a communal living room, the lounge will give kids an inclusive meeting place outside of school and home to goof off together, work on projects, decompress, share ideas, and study.
All three new contemporary spaces will meld into the library’s historic layout through a series of reconfigured walkways and new entrances stemming from the Grand Staircase. A parallel stairway will be built behind the original marble staircase.
As smartly designed and socially beneficial as these new additions promise to be, the demolition of the stacks is still bittersweet. The colossal, six-tier metal book stack was developed by architect Horace Trumbauer and Assistant Librarian John Ashhurst in 1925. When complete, the system climbed up from the basement into the mezzanine level and could accommodate over one million books. Its capacity was rivaled only by the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the British Museum. The retrival system included a then state-of-the-art communication’s system between patron, librarian, and stack runners. Patrons would submit volume requests to librarians in reading rooms, who would transmit the title and card catalogue number by way of a teletype system. After a stack runner retrieved the book, it would be placed on a conveyor belt and sent to the mezzanine, where it would next travel by dumbwaiter to the appropriate reading room. Administrators, librarians, and stack workers would communicate through a pneumatic tube system that featured scores of messaging stations throughout Parkway Central. Like most dated technology, it was groundbreaking upon arrival, but faded into obsolescence as the internet laid claim to our collective psyche and computers placed access to information in the palm of our hands.
Take a step-by-step trip through the stacks at Parkway Central Library in the late 1920s. Photos, sequence, and text courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia.