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The Library for the Future

By Amy Wald Photos By Paul Bardagjy Issue Apr / May 2010 Neighborhood South Side

Affectionately called an “eclectic circus” by its pioneers, the new Twin Oaks Branch Library encompasses all that is unique about South Austin. Drawing inspiration from bookstores, coffee shops, and academic libraries alike, the creators have sought to turn this former post office location into a home away from home for the local community.

Scheduled to open in late May 2010, the reinvented Twin Oaks branch marks a new chapter in Austin libraries, offering everything from self-checkout machines to an outdoor amphitheater with seating made of natural stone. And it is a library for the people and by the people in every way; John Gillum, the project’s leader, has been a South Austin resident since the 1960s and has ensured that the library’s engineers incorporated neighborhood input into every inch of the 10,120 square-foot structure.

“We met and brainstormed with [the community] about what they would like to see in their new library,” explains Tom Hatch, whose firm, Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects, is responsible for the library’s architectural work. “There evolved a wide variety of desires for the library, and it being in South Austin meant that it needed to look and feel like it belonged in South Austin.”

The Twin Oaks library has been part of the South Austin community since 1956, when the original branch first opened at East Oltorf and South Congress. The library, which was surrounded by massive twin oaks, stood at only 300 square feet. It moved two times in subsequent years (all within the same shopping center), but the changes were nothing compared to the complete renovation of the new location at 5th and Mary Street.

The project has been in the works since the 1998 bond election, but it hit a roadblock in 2003 due to turbulent economic times. The delay turned out to be a blessing in disguise, however, because it allowed the library group to reevaluate their vision for the new site.

“Since we were on hold, we thought we would research what other people were doing with their branch libraries,” explains Gillum. “A little library called the Iron Wood Branch in British Columbia came up with this idea—‘all the book stores are stealing all of our good ideas, so let’s steal some back’—and they call it the library for the future. Sometimes it’s called the bookstore model. It’s the newest and most popular thing people are doing in branch libraries.”

Gillum and his colleagues jumped at the chance to modernize the building while still giving it a South Austin edge. From a design perspective, the library merges the vibrant colors and diverse forms that define South Austin with the functionality and sustainability of new age structures.

“It’s not a big building with multiple rooms inside of it,” Hatch notes. “It reads from the street as a collection of smaller buildings married to one another.”

Each area of the library has its own unique exterior shape, and the site itself has two fronts that surround a central tower. Immediately upon stepping inside, customers are met with a beautiful Art in Public Places mobile constructed out of old typewriter keys by sculptor Stephanie Strange. This initial entryway leads to a large community room intended for town hall meetings. It is an area rich with natural light and equipped with doors that open into the outside plaza.

On the other side of the tower lies the heart of the library itself. As part of the “library for the future” model, Gillum shrunk the circulation desk and used the extra space to add self-checkout machines and endless rows of computers. Then, with the help of Hatch, his partner Erik Ulland, and their team of expert interior designers, Gillum created a diverse, technologically advanced space that, in his words, “just kind of takes your breath away.”

The main room contains wooden beams from a barge that plowed the Mississippi for one hundred years, and the photoviltaic panels that line the roof harvest light and energy in an environmentally friendly way. The main stacks lead to a separate children’s area, marked by a whimsical crooked-house-shaped entrance. This space then opens into the library’s Reading Garden—an outside terrace perfect for surfing the net (free Wi-Fi is provided for both members and non-members alike) or relaxing with a favorite book.

Twin Oaks also contains a quiet study area reminiscent of college libraries and a clearly distinguished teen area, complete with a big screen TV, comfy furniture, and “wild and crazy” light fixtures.  But that is not all—the library continues to expand beyond its internal walls, spilling over into a furniture-filled back porch and the aforementioned amphitheater, both of which will be open to the South Austin community even on days when the library is closed.

“There are no fences,” Gillum stresses. “It’s their area. [W]e want the library to reflect the [people] in the neighborhood and their values. That way they’ll love it, take ownership of it, and help us keep it nice.”

Other notable features include a rainwater harvesting system, a back door with a security scanner, and a dry creek bed that trails around the entire building. In addition, the library will literally stay true to its roots—Gillum and company plan to plant twin oaks out front prior to the grand opening and have incorporated a brick from the original post office into the structure.

As Hatch puts it, the new branch is “not your cookie-cutter library.” With its user-friendly features, energy-efficient technology, and community-oriented offerings, the Twin Oaks Library promises to become a true staple in the South Austin community, and it signals the dawning of a new age that will change the face of libraries as we know them.

[Ed. Note: The new Twin Oaks Library will open late August. The old location on Oltorf will close on May 31st.]


Comments (11)

  1. Jennifer says:

    Hi Amy!

    Great article on Twin Oaks, we very much look forward to it opening. However, there’s one mistake in article. The new Twin Oaks is not slated to open until late August. The old location on Oltorf closes on May 31st. Don’t want to upset anyone who is expecting the new location to open at the end of the month. More information on library projects can be found here: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/library/cip.htm#ato .

    Thanks again,
    Jennifer, Reference Librarian at Central

  2. Sabrina McCarty says:

    I am so excited! It’s so close to where I live! I’m in grad school and I look forward to visiting the library often!

  3. lindsey says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    We’ve added a correction to the article. Thanks for the tip!


  4. Jennifer says:

    Jamail & Smith Construction and Hatch Architects did a great job. Can’t wait to use it!

  5. Richard Gravois says:

    When the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver moved from one location to another, the patrons formed a bucket brigade and moved all of the books in one long day.

    My proposal is similar:
    Patrons will check out a bunch of books and bike them over to the new branch.
    The new branch will be staffed for check-in only.

    The amount of neighborhood involvement will bring in tons of good will and pride and a sense of ownership.

    We can do it in the first week of June or during the Memorial Day Flood weekend….

  6. Kanya Lyons says:

    Here is some more information about the closing of the old Twin Oaks and the much anticipated opening of the new Twin Oaks Branch. http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/library/news/nr20100503.htm

  7. Peggy says:

    I am really looking forward to the new library but every time I turn around the opening is at a later date. So the building sits waiting for books and both locations are closed. There must be a faster way to move the books. Community involvement – volunteers etc.?

    Thanks. The new library looks great.

  8. [...] are several pictures of what to expect and more information about the library over at Rare.  The funny wall with the bright colors is the entrance to the children’s [...]

  9. rg says:

    Too bad it’s got a metric butt-load of paved, suburban-style parking. Oh, but if you’ve got a hybrid, you have reserved spot in that wasteland of asphalt, so it IS green.

  10. [...] img { border: solid 5px; border-color: #eeeeee; } h3 {text-align: center } #divlist {margin-left: 30pt; } On August 21st, 2010, Austin will unveil its newest vision of a greener city and introduce the Twin Oaks Branch Library to South Austin. The construction of the new Twin Oaks Library Branch, located off South 5th and Mary Street, was first approved by voters in 1998 but construction took a hiatus in 2003 due to hard economic times. During that time, builders were able to reevaluate the amenities for the new building by researching other bookstore models. By looking at what other branch libraries were doing and having the new found time to do so, project managers were able to collaborate with local residents and come up with a plan to modernize the building while keeping its South Austin look and feel. Now complete, the 10,120 square-foot bookstore boasts green alternatives to recycled water and light as well as eye-catching architecture made from reused bricks. The building uses several eco-friendly systems including a rainwater harvesting system and a day lighting control system. The lighting system The reused bricks came from the demolition of the old South Austin Post Office that once stood in its place. The interior structure of the building is supported by 15 support beams made of reclaimed Douglas Fir, saving the city about 30 trees.The grand opening is on Saturday, August 21st, at 10 a.m. and will feature a ceremony, live jazz music, and local South Austin food and drink. Find out more information about this event here or read more about the structure of this unique South Austin building here. [...]

  11. goatboy says:

    The problem with the “green” designation of this building is that the city demolished a perfectly good building to build this new green one. Calculate the carbon footprint on that one.

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