Chicago Public Library: Harold Washington Library Center Part 1- 6/28/13

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Even before it opened in 1991, the Harold Washington Library Center was the source of both publicity and controversy. Both the library’s location and design were called into question. (1) Despite criticisms, the building was opened to the public on October 7, 1991.  The 756,640-square-foot building was, at the time, the largest municipal library building in the world and is still much loved architecturally.


But does the design of the library’s building translate into a positive experience for library visitors?  Since returning home from Chicago, I’ve read several criticisms of the Harold Washington Library Center written by librarians.  The primary critique of the library is that it is not user-friendly and woefully underused.  I’ve reflected on these critiques and I think there is some truth to them, but I have to admit that when I first entered the library, I was wowed.

The building’s lobby was huge, formal, and echo-y.  I can imagine that this type of entrance might be intimidating for patrons, but as a visitor I felt an immediate gravitas – as if I were entering a building that was IMPORTANT.

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Once inside I immediately headed for the new YOUmedia teen space.  The large room was occupied when I arrived, so I didn’t have a chance to look around too closely.  Later, though, I took a few minutes to peruse the YOUmedia Chicago website (www.youmediachicago.org) where I learned more about the design and goals behind these spaces (now in 5 Chicago libraries).  According to the website, “YOUmedia was created to connect young adults, books, media, mentors, and institutions throughout the city of Chicago in one dynamic space designed to inspire collaboration and creativity.”  From what I could see, the large open space, comfortable furnature, books, computer stations, bright colors and separation from reading rooms and other ‘quiet’ library spaces seemed like a good start.

After peeking into the YouMedia center, I was on my way up to visiting the rest of the library, when I happened upon a tour of the new Maker Space that the library was about to open.  Equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, computers, and collaborative chalk and white board spaces, the small demonstration room seemed like an exciting place for adults to test out new maker tools.

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1. Schulze, F. & Harrington, K. (2003). Chicago’s famous buildings: Fifth edition.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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