Library’s size speaks volumes

September 15, 2002

Library’s size speaks volumes
By BOB WELCH
Columnist, The Register-Guard

AFTER TAKING a tour of Eugene’s new public library, a visiting librarian asked if the staff was going to have plenty of mops on hand for the grand opening.

“For what?” asked Connie Bennett, Eugene’s library services director.

“To clean up the drool,” the woman said.

Tuesday marks the 100-day countdown to the opening of Eugene’s long-awaited new library – and after getting a look at the inside last week, I understand the comment.

For those used to the dark, cramped, user-unfriendly environs of the current library, the new building at West 10th Avenue and Olive Street is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s Dewey Decimal in the Land of Oz, a landscape of knowledge that seems to stretch on, and up, forever and ever.

“It’s huge,” I told Bennett as I stood among what I believed to be the library’s main adult section, an area beneath acoustical panels that hang like clouds.

“This,” she said, “is the children’s area.”

“Oh.”

The new library, at 126,000-plus square feet, is nearly four times the size of the current library. Granted, the unfinished fourth floor will house city offices until the space is needed for books – great idea, that – but, even lopping off an entire floor, this place is spacious. The children’s area alone is roughly the same size as the first floor of the old library.

But it’s more than large. It makes good use of that largeness. It’s practical large. Functional large. And yet looks like it will be cozy, a good library for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

It’s no monument to excess, but a fitting replacement for an existing library that, in an education-oriented city such as Eugene, has been like Frank Lloyd Wright living in a double-wide. Hey, Mac Court might be tight, but at least it has some ambiance, something I never found at 13th and Olive.

Ah, but the new library comes to Eugene like that first Frisbee-throwing-day-of-spring.

Imagine, from 10th Avenue, walking into an airy entry garden that’s home to the Novella Cafe and a used bookstore, Secondhand Prose.

Imagine a number of doors along the garden that, on nice days, will be open to let in fresh air.

Inside, imagine a circular staircase, the hub on which the rest of the library visually spins – twisting up four floors in a shade of apricot, a huge skylight capping it up top.

Heck, imagine not only finding a chair to relax and read in, but a soft-armed chair that’s snug to a window where natural light shines through. And a stiffer no-loitering policy that might mean being able to read without the sound of others snoring.

I DON’T LIKE everything about the $32.4 million library. I don’t like the large-print books being on the third floor; despite elevators, that still seems too far for “veteran readers.” And, I confess, though I might warm up to it later, the sloped roof still says “’50s swimming pool” to me.

But taken as a whole, I like the brick and glass building from the outside. Because of its relatively small size and its location – plopped into an already-existing city – the library will never have the dramatic outer visual presence of, say, Autzen Stadium or – thank goodness – Ya-Po-Ah Terrace. Only from Eugene Station to the east can you really get much of a view of the building.

But that’s fine because the library’s wonder is on the inside, where it should be. Its wonder is in the expanse of space that will say to people: This is an important place, a place our community values.

Its wonder is in the details: the terrazzo floor, white maple shelves and even a few stained glass windows. In a children’s “program room” where the rug-covered floor is heated. And in a nook created especially for young adults.

It will be the state’s first library to have an automated book-return system that, let’s hope, works better at startup than Denver International’s supposedly state-of-the-art system worked.

With windows galore, the library connects well to the city of which it’s a part. To the east: Eugene Station. To the west: maple trees, which soften the building with an appropriate “Northwest” feel.

The second floor features three high-ceilinged areas that, if not as grand as the Harvard or University of Washington libraries, offer that same sense of import. (And, hey, do Harvard or U-Dub have children’s patios featuring elephant mosaics? I don’t think so.)

The existing library will close Dec. 9, the last event being an artist and author’s fair the night of Dec. 7. After two weeks of book-moving, a “soft opening” will unveil the building to the public on Dec. 26.

A grand opening will follow on Jan. 11 for what’s clearly a grand building. And, like the copy of “Ava’s Man” by Rick Bragg I borrowed a few months back, long overdue.

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