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Lighting the modern library

Think libraries are dying? Think again. Libraries aren’t disappearing; they’re simply evolving. And in many ways, lighting design is leading the charge.

According to the American Library Association, modern libraries are viewed as “anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished spaces.” Once strictly seen as a place to browse books, now libraries are “transforming communities, schools and campuses.” These innovative spaces, designed for the way we live today, are driving the library revolution.

“Libraries are changing dramatically, and that’s only going to continue,” said Ardra Zinkon, IALD, MIES. Zinkon, president and director of lighting design at Tec Studio Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, has nearly 20 years of experience in lighting design and works with major public libraries across the United States.

“It’s a unique time for the market, because technology is driving everything that happens in the space,” said Zinkon. “Libraries are no longer old, brick buildings filled with stacks of books and tables of patrons quietly working or reading. They’ve become dynamic cultural centers, and lighting design is changing to fit the new normal.”

Lighting for users, not buildings

A day at the library is a personal experience, and the people using the space are the most important aspect of lighting design for libraries.

“I began my career as a theatrical lighting designer,” said Zinkon. “All young lighting designers begin by trying to create mood and drama, but the director would always remind us that the actors – not the design - were the most important part of the story. The same is true in architecture: we design for the people using the space.”

Library users are unique; unlike shopping center or restaurant patrons, they use the space heavily and for long periods. Modern library visitors engage in a range of activities, and each group has specific lighting requirements:

  • Children prefer bright, themed environments with lots of excitement.
  • Teen areas are trending toward “maker spaces” where young adults can record music and videos in recording studios and learn skills like 3D modeling and computer coding.
  • The traditional user still needs a quiet place to browse and read books.
  • Many visitors depend on public libraries for computer access.
  • Retired adults often visit the library to browse the Internet, check out books or attend speaker series.
  • Many public libraries also integrate cafés, coffee shops and even art galleries.

Once-towering book stacks are shrinking as the world goes digital and library staff and patrons interact on a more personal level. Open floor plans are popping up in new construction, and many libraries are shifting children’s areas to the back of the building. The open, mixed-use floor plans that are becoming a hallmark of modern libraries raise the value of lights that can be independently controlled.

Libraries are relying on lighting designers like Zinkon to design lighting around these changes.

“Many libraries are removing or shortening tall stacks, eliminating the need to light every row,” she said. “You don’t need the same illumination level for a bank of computer desks or a children’s reading area that you would for six-foot stacks; our goal is to make these spaces flexible for their current configuration and for possible future configurations.”

Zinkon is applying principles learned over a long career in some of the country’s most innovative library lighting projects. The Rice Branch of the Cleveland Public Library, once a little-used facility in an urban area, is now the most heavily visited branch in the system. Ninety percent of the redesigned building is glass, creating visual interest and opportunities for daylight harvesting. A new facility in Garfield Heights, Ohio exemplifies a changing library culture. Themed children’s areas, computer workstations and short stacks populate an open floor plan, and hidden wiring under the floors allows for creative lighting schemes.

“I’m lucky to have the opportunity to light beautiful spaces,” said Zinkon. “The architects of these facilities have done tremendous work, giving us beautiful canvases for our lighting designs.”

Future-proof modern library design

Because so many libraries are publicly funded, sustainable design is more than a desire – it’s an expectation. Zinkon said that almost every library designed by her team is LEED certified.

Though it isn’t yet affordable for all libraries, LED technology also uses less energy than fluorescents and other alternatives, and it opens doors for designers working with clients to light a unique space.

“LEDs allow us to customize the length of linear fixtures down to the inch,” said Zinkon. “They’re starting to become more integrated because they’re so flexible, and as the technology becomes more affordable, I believe we’ll see almost all of these buildings become 100 percent LED.”

Zinkon and other industry experts are watching closely as libraries continue to change and adopt new technologies and cultural trends. For example, Zinkon predicts that book stacks may completely disappear from libraries in the future, which would dramatically change the lighting needs for these important public spaces.

“Libraries may become download centers and meeting spaces – in fact, they’re already moving in that direction,” she said. “Library architects spend a significant amount of time talking to communities to understand their behaviors and needs, and this information is just as important for lighting designers.

“We’re always conscious of what we’re integrating into the space and how it will function 10, 20 and even 30 years down the road. Controls technology allows us to easily adapt to the user and the space as lighting needs change without implementing costly replacements or retrofits.”

What’s next

With 1.5 billion in-person visits to U.S. public libraries in 2012 – a 10-year increase of more than 20 percent – libraries are more pertinent than ever.

“Libraries are reinventing themselves to stay relevant in this digital age, and they’ll only continue to evolve,” Zinkon said. “I’m excited to see where we go from here.

“I love what I do. As a lighting designer, I have the opportunity to impact people’s experiences in a positive, meaningful way.”

Sources: American Library AssociationInstitute of Museum and Library Services