A Community Heartbeat

A decade ago, we completed a collaboration with the San Mateo community and the leaders of the San Mateo Public Library. It was a lengthy process that involved many stakeholders and community members, and the new library opened in 2006. Today, it is thriving-and evolving. Much has changed in 10 years but public libraries are still free places to go, to read, to dream. They are safe, open, and beautiful places in their communities.

On October 14, I spoke with donors and community members about the process of creating the San Mateo Public Library, a project that will always hold a special place in my own history. My passion is the process of engagement that precedes the creation of architecture, and in that, this was a perfect project for me. We met and met again, and we debated everything: the curves, the cafe, the trees, the daylight, the materials, and … the curves. The community, donors, and City had a profound desire for the library to be easy to navigate and modern in feel. During the design of SMPL, there were no LEED Certified buildings in the state, and few in the country. We sought to create a beautiful, elegant, warm, civic expression-a place that would stand the test of time. The client and donor focus was on what made this library uniquely San Mateo.

At a time when public funding for important institutions is dry, where commitments to our community serving institutions are coming more from the private sector that through public funds, the SMPL’s elegant public/private partnership for the greater public good is exemplary.

Ten years ago, this community designed a foundation for its next 50 years or more. SMPL was designed to have a future view  by investing in:

  • advanced technology book sorting;
  • raised access floor for air distribution and spatial flexibility;
  • an advanced seismic structural system; and
  • infrastructure for solar panels, which were added in 2012 and provide witness and testament to the City’s commitment to sustainability and resilience.

Our libraries are the one constant institution that allows us to dream in a world that is all about change. This library was designed to anticipate the need for people to meet, collaborate and work in groups to help solve problems and form the companies of tomorrow. Even as online experiences grow, people seek human connections, too. The library is one of the only public places where these connections can happen. It’s what makes your city a community.

For perspective, we asked Amy Himes, who joined SMPL as Executive Director this year: “It’s easy to tell exciting stories about the positive impact of the library in this community,” she says. “A huge part of this is the way that the architecture make the place for all the activities of the library. This is a place where people feel welcome.” As Himes notes: “The collection is important, the services are important, but the place is enormously welcoming as a community center. There is a community heartbeat here.”

by Jennifer K. Devlin-Herbert, FAIA, LEED© AP BD+C