The historic George Latimer Central Library — that stately, white stone building overlooking Rice Park — reopens Saturday after a 21st-century overhaul.
The nearly 100-year-old building is now home to a workforce and innovation center. It includes the city’s first maker (DIY) space for adults, complete with a 3-D printer, laser cutter, recording studios, design software and more. Visitors perusing fiction below the ornately painted ceiling and chandeliers of the library’s Nicholson Commons can charge laptops and phones throughout the room. And many areas have been reconfigured to meet the growing demand for small-group workspace.
Cities across the country are rethinking the services and layout of libraries as people rely on the Internet, not printed volumes, for research and can check out electronic books online without leaving home.
In St. Paul, the $1.3 million update of the large downtown library — paid for by private donations — is the latest in a series of library renovations. Libraries in Arlington Hills, on the East Side and in Highland Park also have seen major changes, including more group and individual workspace and a teen technology center.
“We’ve made the investment in libraries — whether it’s Highland or Sun Ray or Arlington Hills — to really have a library system that’s reflecting the needs of the community,” Mayor Chris Coleman said. “At its core, books are still the center of the library, and reading and literacy. But I think what we’re just recognizing is it’s that and so much more.”
When the recession hit, more people turned to libraries for job-related services, said Peter Pearson, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, which raised the money for the Latimer library renovation. The demand for those services has remained high even as the economy has improved, Pearson said.
City staff members plan to spend more time talking with people about what workforce programs or other services they want in their local library, Library Director Jane Eastwood said, because those needs vary by neighborhood.
The downtown library — near big businesses and accessible by transit — was the logical location for the technology-packed workforce center, city officials said.
In addition to adding high-tech equipment, St. Paul is attempting to draw people into the downtown library by rethinking the layout of its rooms.
Officials tried to make the library more welcoming by adding comfortable chairs and removing imposing staff desks at some entrances, Eastwood said.
Eastwood, who had previously worked for the Minneapolis Public Library, said that organization had been focusing on opening up spaces and making them feel more accessible. When she recently took over the St. Paul job, she said she was glad to see the same changes were happening there.
While officials are trying to open up big rooms, they are simultaneously creating small rooms as more people request meeting spaces.
Libraries are increasingly popular as community gathering spots, Eastwood said. The groups that meet at libraries range from students to book clubs to freelancers collaborating on projects, library staffers said.
“All of a sudden, we couldn’t keep up with the demand” for group space, Eastwood said.
Officials cannot predict what the next trend will be, but Pearson said the libraries are being designed for flexible use.
“So if patron needs do change in 10 years, it won’t be a matter of ripping everything out and starting over again,” he said. “It might just be a matter of moving a few bookshelves or adding a little technology.”