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Reader friendly: New library is a beacon for books

The downtown Minneapolis library, opening Saturday, beckons readers with light-filled spaces, comfy places and an old-fashioned sense of civic elegance. And the public can access most of the 2 million items in the library's collection.
Some people say Minneapolis' new downtown library looks like the old one.

Like the demolished 1961 library, the new building is boxy and the walls are glass and gold-toned Minnesota limestone. It occupies the same block as the former library, between S. 3rd and 4th Streets. And, like that building, it features a public walkway between Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue.

But step inside and you'll see that 45 years have made a world of difference.

Instead of a claustrophobic, linoleum-tiled walkway, a soaring five-story atrium called Library Commons links Hennepin and Nicollet. Its floor is creamy Minnesota limestone inset with marble and blue glass, an artwork by California artist Lita Albuquerque. Glass balconies ring the atrium, glass-walled elevators with large letters scrolling by -- another artwork -- move through the space. An elegant cantilevered stairway snakes up the four floors.

"With a coffee shop and a bookstore, Library Commons will really have an urban feel," said Minneapolis Public Library director Kit Hadley, who steered the five-year, $125 million project to completion.

These days, "a library has to be more appealing as a place," said New Haven, Conn., architect Cesar Pelli, who designed the library with the Minneapolis firm Architectural Alliance.

Its features demonstrate the new role as a gathering place that libraries aim to play in the Internet age:

• A Dunn Bros. coffee shop and a bookstore run by Friends of the Library will greet patrons entering from Nicollet Mall.

• On each floor, reading areas with cushy chairs are grouped around fireplaces -- yes, real fireplaces.

• Woodlined book stacks and adjacent compact storage will make almost 100 percent of the library's collection of books, magazines, musical scores, government documents and CDs, videos and DVDs directly available to patrons.

• The entire building is wired for free wi-fi and offers 300 computers, compared to the old library's 75.

• Meeting rooms, a lecture hall and an art gallery create inviting spaces for library or private events.

"We can't wait for our first wedding in Library Commons," said City Council Member Diane Hofstede, the former Library Board member who cochaired the 10-person committee that oversaw the project.

A quality of light

The first thing you'll notice in Library Commons and in the library itself, which overlooks the commons, is the quality of light. Even if it's dull and gray outside, inside it feels like the longest day of the year.

"We paid a lot of attention to light," said Hadley. Natural light flows in from floor-to-ceiling glass and north-facing clerestory windows high in the atrium. Uplighting on the ceilings and lights on all the shelves and tables add a soft glow.

The second thing you'll notice is the miles of maple. Thanks to the $15 million in private funds raised to supplement the $110 million in voter-approved bonds, the library could afford wood paneling to soften walls, bookshelves, tables and even the underside of the atrium stairway.

The two exceptions to the maple paneling: red and black-stained Japanese ash shelves in the teen area and dark cherrywood that gives an elegant patina to the clublike Special Collections and Athenaeum on the fourth floor.

(The private fundraising also made it possible to install all $750,000 worth of public art right away.)

An easy read

The third thing is the clear layout.

From the glass doors on the first floor to that Special Collections reading room on the fourth floor, the whole place makes sense.

Information desks, restrooms, computer printers, bookshelves and reading areas are in the same place on each floor. Figure out one floor and you've got it whipped. And each floor has its own brightly colored carpet, so you're not likely to forget that first is red and fourth is green.

Each floor does hold different resource areas called "learning commons." The vibrant Children's Library is on the Nicollet Mall corner of the first floor. Teen Central, a bright, edgy space designed by and for teens, is on the Hennepin Avenue side of the second floor.

The most heavily used public areas are on the north side of the commons. Glass-railed bridges lead to the south side of each floor, where books on the same topics are housed in compact storage.

Glass scenes and a wing for a roof

The exterior, too, is more 21st century than it might first look.

A metal-covered "wing" forms the roof of Library Commons and sweeps out over Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue to announce the library's presence from blocks away.

The glass isn't just glass. Four designs based on Minnesota scenes -- snow, prairie grass, birch trees and lakes -- have been baked into the windows to give them texture and shield the inside from sunlight.

The giant panes of glass on the Nicollet Mall vestibule are hung at a rakish angle to create a dynamic entry.

A minimalist landscape designed by Coen + Partners of Minneapolis surrounds the building with black pavers, a neat grid of honey locusts and European-style pole lighting, and White Spire birch planted in piles of Virginia, Minn., slate.

In addition to energy-saving design on the inside, plantings on three parts of the terraced roof will help absorb rainwater before it runs off into the streets. It is downtown's first green roof.

Without shouting, the library's features combine to make a public place that is efficient, easy to understand and inviting. If Minneapolis' old library was bargain-basement, its new one is top-drawer.

Like an open book, it waits to be read.

Linda Mack • 612-673-7124

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