Adjectives and Verbs

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THERE IS SO MUCH TO SAY! Where do I start?

Maybe with: When I ran into Patrick Remer at the Light Up the Night tree lighting, the first thing he said to me was something along the lines of: you guys are going to get the coolest, most amazing library, and this was only after the first two days of intensive meetings with the architectural team.

Maybe with: When I see all of these notices in my inbox and in my nextdoor.com feed from Public Information Officer Martin Nelis about the building of the new Pleasant Hill Library I feel so delighted by the momentum and outreach. A student design contest?! A town hall meeting?! A focus group with seniors?! And to hear of even more outreach announced by Patrick at storytime, even outreach AT storytime? It makes me giddy.

Maybe with: As seems to be the trend with me and all things Pleasant Hill related, I experienced another first–I attended my first town hall meeting on November 27, along with 140 fellow Pleasant Hillians. This meeting was the start of several community engagement events that the architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), along with design firm Margaret Sullivan Studio, are conducting to learn about our community’s unique needs that will shape the space where–as Patrick puts it–“the community comes to see itself”: our new library!

Other library-design community events have included meetings with seniors, tweens and teens, and storytime patrons, along with surveys handed out at the Light up the Night tree lighting. The BCJ team is also planning more town hall events this month and in January, as well as additional focus groups. And if you cannot make it to a live event, you can leave your comments and suggestions at http://www.newphlibrary.org.

Mayor Harris, who opened the evening, described the team at BCJ as “engaging, creative and collaborative”, saying that their approach “reflects our community.” According to David Andreini, Associate Principal at BCJ, the building of our new library is a “wonderful opportunity to do something special.” He used adjectives like “intrigued” and “excited”. Andreini said the team will “back away from design for the next few months” and “just listen”. Listen to why we love Pleasant Hill. Listen to what we value. Listen to what we envision, for our community and for our future library.

I admit it, I welled up. A bunch. It’s kind of my thing to cry at civic events.

Andreini shared the Contra Costa Library vision from the County Library’s latest strategic plan and emphasized its verbs as guiding principles: ”Contra Costa Library is the pulse of our community. Working together we spark imagination, fuel potential, and connect people with ideas and each other.” A good starting place, Andreini noted. Then he turned the evening over to Margaret Sullivan of Margaret Sullivan Studio, by asking, “What is Pleasant Hill about?”

Margaret Sullivan will most definitely find out. Her presentation was the first time (another first!) that I witnessed a marriage between my brief stint in the Bay Area tech scene as a writer and studio manager for a design company specializing in natural user interface, and my soon-to-be vocation, librarianship. I fully understood both languages spoken in the Pleasant Hill Community Center that night: user-centered design and community library love.

Sullivan, considered a leader in innovative library design, pointed out that the biggest change to libraries in the 21st century is the dramatic increase in public programming. She said librarians, like Patrick, with innovative ideas and programs that bring the community together to foster the connectedness we value often “fight with their buildings”. If you’ve ever attended the 11:15 AM Friday storytime with Patrick, you’ve seen what Sullivan means. Sullivan described Pleasant Hill Library’s programming and community as “playful and joyful” but pointed out that those adjectives do not accurately describe our aging and worn facility.

Because libraries serve both individual and community needs, Sullivan described out some friction that can be encountered in such a project: excited citizens vs. uncomfortable citizens; accommodating books vs. making space for making; carving out solitude vs. leaving room for gatherings. Sullivan provided the examples of libraries that have redefined themselves for their communities. My favorites: A Philadelphia library’s The Culinary Teaching Kitchen and a Las Vegas library’s DJ Training Program. All of her examples, she assured us, represented a unique response the library had to its own community. Then Sullivan shared her library design metaphors, different ways of thinking about and/or using the library’s space, such as “Library as vibrant cafe” or “Library as classroom”. Real-life inspiration and metaphors help designers, decision makers and stakeholders think outside the traditional confines spaces occupy physically, mentally and emotionally. Sullivan shared them because they get people thinking creatively together, outside of the library box.

Sullivan emphasized that her work is to discover the “unique aspects that are Pleasant Hill”, our “needs, curiosities, and aspirations”, and to help design a library space that can “create the customized experiences” that our community–and each individual–seek when they walk through the library’s doors.

“How does the space support the activities to create the customized experiences?” Sullivan asked. She pointed out that the paradigm of library service has shifted from the 20th century’s “come in and read and be quiet” to the 21st century’s “come in and learn and be heard.” Today’s library empowers its patrons in all sorts of new ways, which requires new ways of thinking for present and future library users. Then Sullivan posed two crucial questions: “What kind of community do you want to create?” and “What kind of library do you want to create?” The asking and answering of both questions is a “luxury, and a responsibility”, she pointed out.

Those questions and their answers are both grave and dizzying. And I love that it is, really, up to us.

And so the answering began.

When Sullivan turned the microphone over to the Pleasant Hill citizens so that we could tell her what we love about Pleasant Hill, the excitement was palpable. The crowd–from seniors to teens–was a robust cross section of our community and included some of our leaders, members of various organizations, citizens and families. We all had great things to say about the town we call home. One citizen summed it up best when she said, “it lives up to its name!”

When Sullivan asked us to imagine the new library, the crowd (with some prompting) took off with her “Library as garden” metaphor. Clearly we value the outdoors here and participants dreamed up ideas from outside campfires to an attached playground “like none we’ve ever seen” to outdoor classrooms to educational trailhead maps along the creek and canal to a seed library.

Pleasant and hilly, and green in the winter.

Sullivan called out other community values as we went along, sometimes diverging from the “Library as garden” idea. Whatever the topic, people spoke up and Sullivan, and the BCJ team listened. I was enjoying the discourse so much, I didn’t take many notes. Except for this nugget: When Sullivan hears the adjectives “flexible and adaptable” in reference to buildings, she rephrases the sentiment like this–“a building that ebbs and flows in how it’s being used throughout the day and throughout the year.”

Swoon. That’s me now swooning at a civic event.

But wait! There’s more!

There was that one adjective that Margaret Sullivan used that sent shivers up my spine. She prefaced it with “fabulous and” and it resonated deeply within me and my feelings toward the new library and its potential impact on our community: specific. As in, a library experience that is specifically transformative to each individual member of our community, and at the same time, to the community at large. Specific: to Pleasant Hillians, our needs, our interests, our desires, our dreams, our potential, our identity.

But here’s the thing: the only way BCJ can get specific is if we give them specifics.

While I believe Project Manager Michael Kross when he said, “we are all confident we can do something extraordinary” here, there really will be no magic built–no specificity, no uniquely ours–without our input.

So, Pleasant Hillians, we all have until February to be heard.

Originally published on December 7, 2017 at https://phlibraryfriends.org/vertical-file-adjectives-and-verbs/