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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Libraries are evolving’: Renovated downtown Spokane library set to reopen July 11

They’re calling it “the library of the future.”

Spokane Public Library’s revamped central library branch is set to reopen July 11, having closed in February 2020 for renovations. And with a number of new features and amenities, including brand-new study rooms and media and art studios open to the community, this won’t be your father’s library.

Spokane’s main library was built in 1994, a time when libraries were made largely for housing information collections, not so much community connections, said Amanda Donovan, Spokane Public Library’s marketing and communications director.

“Libraries are evolving, and that’s one of the things that we kind of coined this entire project as: the library of the future,” Donovan said. “People are always going to need access to books and resource materials and we can continue to provide that, but what else can we provide to evolve into a 21st-century library?”

The $33 million renovation was funded by a $77 million bond approved by voters in 2018 to renovate four libraries, rebuild libraries in the East Central and Hillyard neighborhoods, and add one new one: The Hive.

Some of the renovations to the Central Library are similar to those implemented nationwide during the past couple of decades, particularly on college campuses and larger facilities, said Chance Hunt, an associate teaching professor at the University of Washington’s Information School. The federal Institute of Museum and Library Spaces has historically offered grants to support the evolution, such as funding for creative spaces.

Public libraries always have offered programming and classes beyond their role as information centers at low or no cost, Hunt said.

“In the 20th century, libraries were a big part of helping people get their citizenship, learn English and other types of activities,” Hunt said. “They’re still doing that, but now it’s with learning labs, computer classes and gathering spaces for people to learn their English. Libraries have evolved from being truly kind of warehouse spaces, with rows and rows of materials, to places that are a lot more flexible and can accommodate different types of usage.”

At a staffing level, Donovan said the library is looking to better address user needs by moving away from service generalists to specialists, listing a business librarian, audio and video production gurus and a current events expert as examples.

As for physical upgrades, Donovan said the public process for vetting ideas for the Central Library started even before the 2018 bond vote. With an improved children’s area and free meeting places among the top asks, the library responded with an expanded play space for kids and an increased number of study rooms and event spaces free for reservation.

Less visible upgrades include an updated heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, interior and exterior air quality monitors installed in partnership with the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency and rooftop solar panels, Donovan said. While hoping to sell excess energy back to Avista, Donovan said the library nonetheless plans to use the panels as an educational tool through a kiosk that will display solar energy levels.

More efficient use of space was also a major project priority, Donovan said.

To that end, first-floor staff space has been redone to make way for an atrium, with a new café and a Friends of the Library used bookstore on the first floor. The New Leaf Café, a program of the nonprofit agency Transitions, provides job training for women who face barriers with employment in traditional workspaces.

The first floor is also home to spaces including the Business Lab, the library’s entrepreneurial business incubator formerly known as Level Up; the computer lab; two event rooms separated by a collapsible partition wall; and an art studio. The spaces are free to use by anybody for free events, Donovan said. The library will charge groups, however, that use space for paid and ticketed events.

“Things just changed with the way that we operate,” Donovan said of the first floor, which was largely staff space prior to the renovations.

“It made so much more sense to use that space for the public, so that’s what we’ve done here.”

An old staff entryway off of Spokane Falls Boulevard has been converted into a new public entrance. A new stairwell to the second floor is highlighted by a hanging glass sculpture by Portland artist John Rogers called “Shimmer.”

The second floor remains dedicated to the library’s collections, complete with five study rooms – up from none before the renovation.

The second-floor children’s area includes elements designed with Spokane in mind, such as a pretend submersible that looks like a river gondola. Adjacent to this space are diner benches installed with teens in mind.

Renovations also included the construction of “social stairs” alongside the second-floor stairwell. Equipped with outlets and a view for a projector screen, the social stairs are a place where people could sit to just hang out or perhaps for a lecture or special event, Donovan said.

“It’s whatever you need it to be,” she said of the library itself. “It should be a community gathering space. There are quiet reading spaces. There are quiet meeting rooms. There’s plenty of computer and internet access. It’s connecting resources with people.”

While the library’s vault of historical rarities remains on the second floor in a climate-controlled space, the Inland Northwest Special Collections room has moved up to the third, now equipped with glass exhibit cases.

Event space is a theme of the uppermost floor, which is still home to a view overlooking the Spokane Falls. Renamed nxʷyxʷyetkʷ Hall (pronounced inn-whi-whi-ettk, a Salish word meaning “Life in the Water”), the space will be available for rent as well as special events, like Lilac City Live.

The third floor also has new video, audio and production studio spaces. Nonprofit community radio station KYRS, known as “Thin Air Community Radio,” will broadcast live from the library.

Audio studio users will be able to either lay down their own tracks or enlist the library’s music education specialists for recording services in exchange for volunteer service hours to the library. As part of the deal, the recordings are licensed to the library for sharing on Lilac City Records, a local music streaming service through the open source platform MUSICat, Community Engagement Manager Jason Johnson said.

“Libraries see themselves as being productivity spaces,” Hunt said. “It’s beyond being relevant. It’s being a place where people can activate, their imaginations can activate, and collaborate together.”