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Renovated Free Library branches aim to get more people in the door

The modernized branches of the Philadelphia Free Library - Lovett, Logan, Tacony, and Marrero - are less about books and more about social experience.

The Free Library has just renovated and expanded four branches to reflect the new ways people are using its facilities. The glass addition at the Lillian Marrero branch at Sixth and Lehigh includes an elevator that finally makes the building accessible.
The Free Library has just renovated and expanded four branches to reflect the new ways people are using its facilities. The glass addition at the Lillian Marrero branch at Sixth and Lehigh includes an elevator that finally makes the building accessible.Read moreJeffrey Totaro

The gleaming, white Lillian Marrero Library on Lehigh Avenue is easily the most magnificent building in the Fairhill neighborhood. And that's long been a problem for the Free Library.

The building was a gift from Andrew Carnegie, the early 20th-century philanthropist, who believed that community libraries could help lift people out of poverty. To ennoble the experience of borrowing a book, Carnegie libraries were often modeled on classical palaces, with grand staircases, columned porticos, and hushed, wood-paneled reading rooms. At Marrero, you had to climb 23 steps to the entrance, then shoulder-open a pair of heavy oak doors. For elderly and disabled residents in the heavily Latino Fairhill section, Carnegie's great civic resource may just as well have been located on the moon.

Figuring out a better way to get people in the front door of its branches has taken on new urgency for the Free Library. As more of the world's information fits in the palm of our hands, fewer people need to check out a physical book. In the last few years, the Free Library has watched its total number of visitors dribble down, from 13.8 million in fiscal 2014 to 9.9 million in fiscal 2017.

Hoping to counter the trend, the Free Library has just renovated four branches — Lovett, Logan, Tacony, and Marrero — to make them more welcoming and flexible. In each case, it brought the doors down to where the people are, at sidewalk level, and installed elevators. The interiors have been reconfigured to appeal to a generation raised on smartphones. The transformation marks the beginning of a sea change for Philadelphia, from the library as a storehouse of books to the library as a community gathering place.

The library's response to the disruption of the internet resembles the strategies pioneered by big retailers like Apple and Warby Parker. Rather than think of their stores as outlets that exist to ring up sales, they have reimagined them as places to have experiences that reinforce loyalty to the product. They serve as clubhouses for the brand.

In a similar way, the four library branches have been outfitted with meeting and study rooms, and furnished with soft seating and cafe tables to encourage people to hang out. The number of books and bookshelves have been greatly reduced. "We've stopped talking about stuff and now talk more about the experience, being with other people," Siobhan Reardon, the Free Library's president, told me.

To prepare the branches for their new role, the library hired James R. Keller, who spent 25 years as Vitetta architects' library specialist and recently started his own firm. Since all four branches had been poorly maintained, his first job was to fix the roofs and modernize the infrastructure. Once the structures were stabilized, Keller applied the principals of universal design to ensure that the branches could be accessed and used comfortably by everyone.

It's almost unbelievable that Marrero operated without an elevator until its reopening last week. "You look at those stairs and think, 'What a terrible way to say hello to someone,' " Keller said. "It's telling people, 'You can't come in.' "

It wasn't just Marrero. All four branches had accessibility issues, partly because they date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marrero also is historically designated, making it difficult to tamper with the exterior.

Keller developed an accessibility template that could be easily adapted to each branch. At Marrero, Tacony, and Lovett, he designed striking glass additions that have sidewalk-level entrances and house elevators that serve the older building. Because of space constraints, an exterior wheelchair ramp was installed at Logan.

At Marrero, you now enter from the corner of Sixth and Lehigh, traveling up a gently sloping ramp to a shimmering glass enclosure that has been scored with a star-shaped pattern, a riff on the Roman lattice muntins that divide the windows on the main building. The star pattern, which also deflects glare, makes the simple structure dance with life.

Besides providing elevator access to the main reading room, Keller was able to tuck in a cafe-style reading area on the second floor, with work counters and plug-ins for laptops. Because the room is elevated, the counters offer spectacular views of the rowhouse neighborhood and the distant towers of Center City. The design cries out for coffee service, but the Free Library is ambivalent.

The glass addition flows into Marrero's soaring reading room, designed by the Hewitt brothers in 1906. Along with restoring the coffered ceiling and other classical details, Keller cleared out the Sheetrock partitions that had cluttered the great room. The result could have been stuffy restoration, but Keller played against type by furnishing the immense room with brightly colored modern furniture and quirky light fixtures.

The centerpiece of Marrero's reading room — and all the branch reading rooms — is an oval-shaped seating arrangement called the "Living Room." Custom-made by Agati, a Chicago industrial design firm, the furniture solves three problems at once: The upholstered banquette allows readers to relax with a book or type at a laptop on a cafe table. The back of the seating is rimmed with shelves, lighting and a work counter. And since the arrangement is comprised of modular pieces on wheels, the Living Room can be easily disassembled to create an events space. All the shelves are kept low to ensure that children and people in wheelchairs can easily scan the titles.

Such communal seating naturally encourages chatter, which the library wants. But since many library users still need quiet places to work, each branch is outfitted with glass-walled study rooms. Every location has a communal table with desktop computers. One thing you won't find in any of the four is a circulation desk. That's been replaced by self-service check-out machines, giving librarians more time to wander the floor, offering assistance.

Reardon said the branches would ramp up their programming soon. That includes everything from movie nights to video gaming clubs to English classes for immigrants. Thanks to a grant, Marrero was able to hire a community organizer to work with Spanish speakers, particularly those who have just arrived from Puerto Rico to escape the ravages of Hurricane Maria.

None of this came cheap. It cost $28 million to renovate the four branches, and the project wouldn't have been possible without a $15 million grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Can brighter rooms and cafe counters really attract people who perceive libraries as musty throwbacks, while keeping those who still like to physically scour the stacks for information? Reardon says the early numbers are encouraging. After the South Philadelphia branch reopened last year in a new combination health-and-rec center on South Broad Street, it quadrupled the number of visitors. The Free Library predicts that 10.2 million visitors will stop in its branches in 2018. At least in the four renovated branches, they should have no trouble getting in the front door.