A Camel Staircase Library

A great deal of transition and movement in my life started this spring that still has me all soft and squishy: a whirlwind house purchase and move, seven straight months of daily meditation, my son finishing his first year at preschool and celebrating his 4th birthday, and a week-long visit from my mom and sisters–the first time we’ve all been together for seven straight days in 27 years. It makes sense, then, as I sit back and watch the highway of emotions whiz by that I catch glimpses of raw tenderness mingled with nostalgia, humility and awe. With those heavy emotions also comes joy and excitement about growth and new adventures. I got to hang out with my sisters without fighting over clothes and they did the dishes without being asked–it was amazing!

The spring ushered in some exciting momentum in our community, too. This news came out of City Hall on April 18 when Public Information Officer Martin Nelis reported: “The City and the County can now move forward on an agreement for the transfer of approximately three acres at 1700 Oak Park Boulevard (the vacant property across Monticello Avenue from the current library building) for the new library location.”

Image from http://www.ci.pleasant-hill.ca.us/1226/Pleasant-Hill-Library-Project

Patrick Remer, Senior Community Library Manager (and storytime rock star), predicted that pinning down a site was months away in an interview I wrote about earlier this year. He also touched on the next bit of good Pleasant Hill Library news reported by Nelis:

Concurrent with the City and County discussions, the City is moving forward with plans for the design and construction of the new library. The City recently issued a Request for Proposals [RFP] from architectural firms to begin the design of the building and landscaping improvements. It is anticipated that an architect will be hired this summer to begin work in early fall. The library design process will involve extensive community outreach and engagement through workshops and public hearings.

Back in November, Patrick said: “The biggest piece of the forthcoming master timeline for me is making sure that we choose an architect and other consultants or contractors who are going to be really responsive and interested in having a dialogue and an iterative design process.”

What exactly is iterative design, its process and the thinking behind it? Iterative design is a cyclical process that starts and ends with understanding users’ needs. Earlier this year, Adobe invited Patrick and friends to speak about the future of libraries for a hackathon design workshop. According to the Hackathon handouts where engineers practiced thinking like designers, the process goes like this:

From the February 2017 Adobe Hackathon. Reprinted with permission.

The emphasis on users is key, especially for a house of the people, a building that exists solely to serve and gather a community. How will the iterative process lend itself to the building of a library? There are obvious barriers to the prototyping and testing phase when the product is a building, but there are limitless design ideation possibilities when engaging in creative dialogues with community members, from non-library users to library lovers, from seniors to toddlers (my 4 year-old son would have loads to say about his perfect library, and it would include trucks, cats and purple).

As Patrick said, “We really want to give people an open forum to just say what’s on their mind, what are the things they really care about and to make a concerted effort to reach out to all users, as well as non-users and folks whose engagement with the library is limited.”

We discussed additional resources that Patrick hopes to tap, like the Brazelton Touchpoints Center; and the design minds from Stanford (Patrick recommended a book published by Stanford, called Make Space about Stanford’s d.school, or design school); our own Bay Area tech, product and interface design talent; and even the work of Seymour Papert, a founder of the MIT Media Lab who, as Patrick stated it, believed “we construct our own knowledge best when we are constructing things in the physical world.”

Patrick continued:

We talk about the 21st century library but what does that really look like? Who is positioned to understand the direction of these tech trends over the next few decades? Not necessarily what we need to build tomorrow with this new facility, but how we should be building capacity to evolve technologically. I really wish someone in 1961 was like, “you know, let’s double the number of power outlets.” It’s really hard to predict how things are going to change. We need to ask. We need to ask the people who are best positioned to predict those things.

I was chatting with Councilman Matt Rinn at a Rec and Park event. He was telling me a fable about designing a horse. It was something like when the gods tried to invent a horse, they were like, “it should have that and it should have this.” They basically came up with a camel because they were trying to pack in too many things. It’s got all these features. It can store water and it’s got a longer neck. At a certain point you end up with something you didn’t expect. I’d be happy to have a camel library that’s just funky and unusual and unique.

Photograph by Soma Rani Kundu

One camel library coming up!

Pleasant Hill Mayor Michael Harris, the self-proclaimed most frequent library visitor who called 2017 “The Year of the Library”, attended the annual Friends meeting on Saturday May 13 to talk about the next steps toward the new library. After a library quiz (with prizes), Mayor Harris walked us through the tours the Library Task Force members took of 14 area libraries from Sacramento to Los Gatos. Mayor Harris shared images of what worked and didn’t work (yes to comfortable chairs on wheels with power outlets, no to a library cafe–sorry, folks). He also talked about next steps and funding.

Mayor Harris told us that the RFP for library architects was released the same day the Board of Supervisors voted on the land site. Since then the momentum toward our new library has been buzzing along. Proposals were due June 5 and the City Council hopes to award the contract to an architect by August.

Like Patrick, Mayor Harris said the designing of our new library will include extensive public engagement. He, like Patrick, wants to hear from everyone in our community in workshops and public hearings.

As Mayor Harris said, at this point “nothing is off the table.”

What can community members do now to participate in helping the design of the new library iterate?

Mayor Harris proposed an idea that I love and eagerly anticipate: a design contest for the K-12 set asking them to “imagine a new Pleasant Hill Library” with the K-5 crowd focusing on designing the children’s area and the 6-12 kids imaging the teen area. Mayor Harris also suggests that we “send emails now” with any and all ideas, or wait for the town-halls and workshops. He reiterated: “You are going to help us design this library. Libraries make communities stronger. We are building a building for people.”

There is a lot to consider. We are all unique users with a hodge-podge of individual and collective needs. And whatever the space might look like, the library has and always will meet that challenge to serve. So it is exactly our hodge-podge of needs that will ultimately iterate the design of our library. We need to raise our voices now, before the foundation is poured.

Back in November Patrick stated:

Basically our public is going to use this space in ways we never predicted and there’s going to be really wonderful things that come out of that. There’s also going to be challenges that come from that as well.

I think one of the really good rules of thumb that came out of that Make Space book is the escalator test, which I really really love. When an elevator breaks, as ours does frequently, it’s useless. It’s totally broken. Like when a computer breaks, it’s like a brick. When an escalator breaks, it becomes a staircase. We need to think about how things can be as simple as possible while building in flexibility because people will want to put their fingerprint on the space and their experience of it. We need to build in an open-mindedness.

Make that a flexible camel staircase library!

The prospect of building a new library will indeed make some members of our community feel nostalgic. But it is also an opportunity to be excited, to imagine and anticipate. If we don’t speak up now, we might just end up with a donkey elevator library. Or a hippopotamus skyscraper library.

What does that even mean?

Adobe engineers prototype a room of a 21st century library.

Some of the Adobe engineers practicing iterative design thinking at the Hackathon imagined–after talking to us, library users and librarians: accordion partitions between rooms, Whiteboard walls, Murphy-style fold-down tables, digital displays on the outside of the building featuring in progress programs, and even “cones of silence” (dome-shaped modules on racks in the ceiling that could come down and cover individuals or groups looking for good old fashioned quiet in the library). And they only thought about community library users’ needs for three hours or so. Imagine what we–our entire community–could come up with weeks of contests, workshops, focus groups and town-halls in which to ideate and iterate? Exciting, isn’t it?