Cambridge Public Library Grand Opening: A Beautiful Library for a Great Innovation City

11/10/09Follow @bbuderi

When they write the book on great libraries of the world, a few legendary names will come to mind: Alexandria; Pergamum (the city where papyrus is said to have been invented) in what is now Turkey; the British Library; the New York Public Library; and of course, the U.S. Library of Congress. The new public library here in Cambridge, MA, will not be on anyone’s list. But I have been driving down Broadway past its construction site for several years now, watching as it went from a hole in the ground to a beautiful ultra-modern structure that opened Sunday afternoon. And the same thought passed through my mind each and every day: A great library for a great innovation city.

So you can bet I was there Sunday for the official opening (although I waited until halftime of the Patriots game)—and joined hundreds of others who had descended on the place. Everyone was oozing excitement. And although the checkout line stretched from the spectacular lobby halfway up the stairs to the second floor—it turns out some 1,750 visitors passed through in the three hours the library was open Sunday–no one was complaining. The director, Susan Flannery, couldn’t be happier. “Yesterday, in three hours, we checked out over 4,000 items,” she told me on Monday. “We had a ton of high school kids here today.”

I know writing about a public library is a stretch for biz-tech news blog like Xconomy. But at the same time, education and learning is the source of innovation—and I was personally so inspired by the library that I couldn’t help writing about it. Given the way it was drawing students, especially, I even asked Flannery if we could expect a renaissance of learning and innovation here in Cambridge as a result of the library. Cambridge has always been rich in learning, she responded, not quite taking the bait. “We’re just making it more appealing and easier to do.”

But there are a few things on the technology front worth mentioning that at least go toward that end. Free public Wi-Fi is available throughout the building. The library has nearly 100 publicly accessible computers (a few are dedicated to online catalogs, but the vast majority are unrestricted). About 20 are in a dedicated computer room, another dozen in the teen room, 10 or so in the children’s room, 8 in the research room, and the rest spaced throughout the facility (sadly, they are all Windows machines—no Macs!). There is also an extensive digital media catalog for downloading e-books and audiobooks—but that’s part of the overall Minuteman Library Network that serves 42 libraries in the Metrowest region of Massachusetts and is not special to the new Cambridge library. Flannery says the library has a grant that will allow it to buy some handheld electronic readers (a la Kindle) that may be available for loan, and that it also plans to add Nintendo Wiis to the teen room and purchase a couple of interactive white boards for the general library that can be used for everything from watching movies to collaborating on projects through their touch interface.

4,000 items were checked out in 3 hours.

4,000 items were checked out in 3 hours.

But back to my tour. There are three floors above ground and two below—and the modern new structure connects to the old main library, which itself has been completely redone. (Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school, is the next building down—and it is fantastic that this great library is within such easy reach for students. I can happily report that both my kids, who attend Rindge and Latin, can’t wait to go and study there—and if their peers feel the same, the project might have already paid for itself.) I roamed all over the building: the only place I couldn’t go was the lowest level, which houses meeting rooms and a 230-seat auditorium and was closed off for the day. “It’s fabulously gorgeous,” says Flannery of hte auditorium. She says that in addition to state-of-the-art audio/visual system, the space is equipped with an audio enhancement system for the hearing impaired.

The total cost of the project was $90 million, Flannery says (though that included other, non-library work done in conjunction with the renovation). The state contributed a $10 million grant, and the rest was paid for by the city of Cambridge, she says. The lead architects of this great library are William Rawn Associates of Boston, with Ann Beha Architects, also of Boston, as the associate architect. With no floor or carpet glues or other volatile organic compounds, a lighting system that shuts off when there is enough light from the sun, and bamboo flooring in the children’s room, it will be LEED certified as a green building. And here is the landing page for all sorts of other information about the library.

But I didn’t really interview anyone in depth for this story. I just went in, scribbled notes, and took a bunch of pictures. And I reveled. Below are my photos (the first two were taken earlier this fall) and some impressions: the captions come above the images. Click on any image to make it larger.

The long view from Broadway.

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Old library meets the new. A glass hallway and courtyard connects them.

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Opening day, Sunday, November 8, 2009.

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In we go. The place was ablur with action. Really—it isn’t the photo.

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To continue viewing photos, go to the next page.

There was music and a sign for Skip Gates’ book. No sign of Sgt. James Crowley or the President.

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Immediately to the right of the main entrance is a cool reading and display area. Just looking at it makes you want to read and think.

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The first floor stacks, inside and to the right of the main entrance—next to the glass-walled reading area in the picture above.

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Glass-enclosed meeting room immediately left of the main entrance. Cool, but makes me think of board meetings.

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Once inside, there is a connecting walkway to the original library structure (Hey, I guess they put the large print books there because it’s the old building). Keep at eye on that glass-walled area to the left.

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Remember that glass-walled area in the previous photo? This is what’s in there. Won’t be open too much longer this year.

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Computer room in the old building. It’s not just for middle-aged white guys.

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Teen lounge (also in the original structure). But where are the teens? (And does that kid have a basketball?)

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The third-floor children’s area, with bamboo floors and cool artwork on the ceiling.

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Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • Caryn

    This spring, the community outreach committee of the Cambridge Chamber has planned a community service day to beautify the outside of the library with plants, flowers and shrubs in collaboration with the Cambridge DPW. We hope we can add to the already great aesthetics of the building and landscape. Will let you know the date which will be in May 2010! In the meantime, we can hope that the students at CRLS will use the space as their “home away from home” and take advantage of all it has to offer.