230. …like a church for books

OMG, today I visited the most breathtaking library I have ever seen. Now ordinarily the words, “breathtaking” and “library” don’t go together, but the Seattle Library’s Central Library is no ordinary library. First of all, the building itself is an architectural wonder (see images here). It seems far to beautiful for something as utilitarian as a library, and maybe that’s the point.

Airports terminals are known as places where the architecture makes a grand, sweeping statement about the aesthetics of a place (see Kansai International, for example), because for visitors, it’s the first thing they see upon arrival. However, I think an argument could be made for the idea that a city’s main library can (and should) also make a statement.

Anyway, back to the Seattle Central Library. This thing must be experienced to be understood. It’s not just a building with books, it’s a carefully thought through, purposefully designed space where form closely follows function.

For example, the dewey decimal system numbers that correspond to the books on the shelves are printed in large block text on the floor tiles adjacent to the shelves themselves (see here). These numbers ramp up (literally…I’ll get to that in a second) sequentially, so there’s no hunting around trying to find the 700s or the 200s. The floors are linked by a ramp that winds its way around the library so you’re never at a loss as to how to find the book you’re looking for. This is quite unlike most libraries I’ve been to where at the end of one shelf you find books in the 300s but the 400s are in another wing entirely. Genius.

There are lots of tables and very comfortable chairs. There’s also free wi-fi, a feature that no library should be without. Also, the tables have power strips conveniently located on the table top – no more searching for outlets on the floor.

I know it’ll sound like I’m resorting to hyperbole here, but it really does feel like sacred space. Information is one of God’s great gifts to us and this library certainly highlights that fact (intentionally or not).

Oh, and behind the scenes is an amazing automated system of conveyer belts that mechanically sorts books through the use of RFID tags (basically tiny transmitters). There’s a little kiosk near the desk where you sign up for a library card that tells you all about it. They’re justifiably proud of their system because it’s kick-ass, geek-out technology.

One last bit about the library, it’s not a place for acrophobia (fear of heights) sufferers. The exterior walls are made of glass (the steel, load bearing beams are on the interior) and because the library has been designed with lots of open space, it’s just about impossible to not be aware of how high up you are. I don’t think I’m afraid of heights (never had that problem before) but there were parts of the library that left me feeling a bit woozy.

All that to say, if you visit Seattle, make it a point to check out the library. Now to most, that probably sounds as stupid as saying, be sure to visit the dentist, but this is not just a library. It’s an experience. Even if you don’t like to read, it’s fascinating to walk through an architectural space quite unlike any other.


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