New libraries go high-tech, cater to individual communities

Branches open at Wolf Creek and Palmetto. More to come.

Covered in copper-colored material, the striking new building appears to subtly change shades in different lights, as thought an autumn leaf had fallen to the ground from the surrounding woods.

Inside, the lobby has the look of a smart boutique hotel: A small cafe and bookstore, a meeting room with original artwork on the walls, and a sleek flat-screen TV scrolling information on upcoming events, including a concert, author appearances and yoga classes.

There’s a music room just beyond the lobby doors. Plus, self-checkout kiosks, state-of-the-art computer stations and comfy armchairs against a dramatic backdrop provided by a soaring wall of windows looking out toward a pond.

And, oh yes, books. Lots of books. Open since Sept. 8, Wolf Creek Library in southwest Atlanta is home to 55,000 books, magazines, DVDs, with shelf space for another 20,000.

Here come the new libraries. In every sense of the word.

Wolf Creek is the first new branch of the Atlanta Fulton Public Library System (AFPLS) to be built since Fulton County voters overwhelmingly approved a $275 million library bond referendum in 2008. Under Phase I, eight new branches are being built and two existing branches are undergoing expansion and renovation. Some of the new branches are in previously under-served parts of the county, like the rapidly developing area around the Wolf Creek Amphitheater (the 25,000-square-foot new library is next door neighbor) and farther south.

On Dec. 15, the new Palmetto Library opened in a growing region that’s a mix of farmland and multi-use developments like Serenbe. The city donated land on Cascade Palmetto Highway for a building that suggests a hip, deconstructed barn and is cutting edge environmentally-friendly. Next up, in early 2015, comes the new East Roswell branch. Followed soon by Milton and Alpharetta, where the new branch will more than double the size of the one it’s replacing.

The new libraries will share high-tech systems that automate many functions formerly handled by staff. (The bond referendum provided funds for building libraries and their collections, but not for staffing them.) Books and other materials will be outfitted with chips that will help speed processing and shelving. Self-checkout machines will be provided at all the branches. Larger branches will have automated sorters.

“Being such a large system, it’s always a challenge to make yourself over,” said Anne Haimes, interim AFPLS system director.“We saw this as a wonderful opportunity to not just expand what we currently have, but actually create a new standard for the technology we want to have for the future.”

But in other important ways, each library is different and in keeping with each community’s interests, culture and needs. Wolf Creek was to be carved out of a woodsy area and many people wanted a library in keeping with its setting. The architects at Leo A. Daly Co. came through with a building that’s all autumnal colors and stacked stone outside and suffused inside with natural light from numerous large windows. In the main library area, benches encircle an 18-foot-tall sculpted tree by renowned Atlanta artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier.

In Palmetto, where a nearly century-old train depot has been restored as an event space, the new library features railroad-themed design touches on the bookshelves and a locomotive-shaped bench in the children’s department. The “storytime” area is shaped like a barn silo, in keeping with the area’s farming tradition, and the branch has a large collection of books about photography and healthy cooking and other high-interest topics to the community it now serves.

None of this was the result of guesswork. AFPLS held 57 community meetings before and after the referendum to determine what users wanted from their branches. What emerged was sometimes surprising. Each community had different ideas of what it wanted, and the AFPLS adapted their plans accordingly. For instance, an early notion of building a 25,000-square-foot branch around Palmetto/Chattahoochee Hills changed when residents made it clear they wanted a library. But not a big one.

“They said, ‘We’re going to be the kind of library that comes in and takes away,’” said Haimes. They wanted to check out books and access library system’s databases remotely by computer. They wanted storytime, some programming and meeting rooms. They were less interested in spaces to linger. Palmetto ended up at 10,000 square feet.

In Alpharetta, the original recommendation was to renovate the existing branch on Canton Road. It opened in 1989, when Alpharetta’s population was a quarter of what it is now and before its 10,000 square feet had to accommodate CDs, DVDs, computer terminals and other modern inventions.

“The community strongly felt that they needed a (new) 25,000-square-foot library,” Haimes said.

It will get that and more. The new library is a key part of the Alpharetta City Center being built near the corner of Haynes Bridge Road and Thompson Street. The 22-acre development, which also includes a park, a new City Hall and a town square, will help create a downtown “heart of the community,” said James Drinkard, Alpharetta assistant city administrator.

As Phase I progressed, one new branch’s “loss” turned out to be another one’s gain. Downsizing in Palmetto meant a 25,000-square-foot library could be built in a more developed area of South Fulton.

“That is how Wolf Creek came about,” said Haimes.

Here was another community that knew what it wanted: Quiet spaces in which to work and read. Lots of computers for job searches and school research, plus wireless printers and plug-in space for laptops, smart phones and the like. A large meeting room and at least one smaller room that could be used for classes and community events even when the library was closed, hence their location in the lobby. “Barnes and Noble-like” comfy chairs. A book club.

In other words, pretty much the opposite of a “come in and take away” branch.

“It’s very different from designing an office building,” said Avery Sarden of Leo A. Daly Co. “People will live in a library.”

Teens at Wolf Creek have their own dedicated area, with computers and books on topics ranging from zombies to SAT Prep. Maybe most important from their perspective, it’s clear across the library from the brightly colored children’s department, which, along with books, boasts two different computer areas (“right-sized” for kids of different ages) and a circular, fully enclosed storytime room.

In between lies the main collection, several small study rooms, a room for listening to and playing music, and Marshall-Linnemeier’s soaring tree sculpture framed by that wall of windows. One percent of each library building project budget goes toward public art. For the lawn at Palmetto, Andrew T. Crawford created a metal sculpture that’s loosely suggestive of an old tractor left in a field.

Build it and they will come. At Wolf Creek on the Monday before Thanksgiving, some two dozen people waited eagerly in the lobby to play Jenga, Operation, Wii — even a spirited game of Musical Chairs — during the branch’s inaugural “Game Day.” A new “Friends of Wolf Creek Library” group already had 25 volunteers, and individuals or groups had booked the meeting rooms for various activities 22 times in October.

Also in October, Wolf Creek issued 259 new library cards. That torrid pace likely won’t continue, but the message is clear.

“They had no cards before this,” Wolf Creek branch manager Teryn Gilliam said of those 259 people. “I guess now they feel this is their library.”

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