Beyond the Bookshelf: Three ways the role of the public library has changed

Seven years.

Thirty-four branches.

Investment of $113 million. 

On June 14, Helix celebrated the grand opening of the new Riverside Branch for the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) system. With the completion of this branch, our seven-year contract with MCPL has also concluded. Reflecting on the magnitude of a project this size comes with seeing some impressive numbers, but in the end, there is one number that really matters: 840,000.

Three women on stage during a conference

As one of the largest library systems in the country, MCPL serves more than 840,000 patrons across Jackson, Clay, and Platte Counties. After an overwhelmingly successful capital plan passed in 2016, the following year MCPL embarked on enhancing the way they serve their community in functional, comfortable spaces that are also beautiful and inviting. Over the next seven years, Helix and our design collaborators at Sapp Design Architects partnered with MCPL — and the community — to bring new life to the library system. 

Delving into the programming and design of each branch, we discovered firsthand the evolving role of the library in its community. Three key things stood out to us:

Libraries have more than books
For MCPL, the advent of technology posed more opportunities than threats. MCPL explored how adopting technology early on could enhance the patron experience. By purchasing digital subscriptions and providing content electronically, libraries are able to broaden access — and free up physical space within their buildings. 

Stacks with hard copies of books were replaced with computer labs, gathering areas, and flexible spaces for more community programs. MCPL began to include coffee shops in select branches, inviting patrons to use the library as a place where they can socialize, be productive, or simply linger. 

Libraries are an inviting third place
Without the confines of shelving, libraries are able to welcome more of the community into their buildings. Embodying the idea of a third place — somewhere outside of work or home where people can come together and connect with one another — public libraries are one of the few places that are truly accessible to anyone. 

From the moment patrons enter, MCPL’s branches encourage interaction and connection. The design addressed user comfort and wellbeing with generous windows that bring in natural light and spacious, flexible floorplans that give the libraries an open environment. Many branches also include community rooms that are available for patrons to reserve.

Libraries engage with their patrons in more ways than ever before
After completing a strategic analysis of the entire system, MCPL identified a number of ways in which it could change the idea of the traditional library and offer a more robust experience. New destination branches, each with a specific focus, were developed to address gaps in community services. 

SquareOne Headquarters
The Colbern Road branch is now the dedicated home for SquareOne, MCPL’s in-house group that offers support to entrepreneurs and small businesses. It offers SquareOne staff a place to touch down between client meetings, replenish, and put on programs for the community. The rest of the Colbern Road branch offers a coworking environment, incorporating elements of workplace design. 

Culinary Literacy Center – Green Hills
Devised as a cutting-edge culinary literacy center, the Green Hills branch energizes the area with the discovery of new culinary ventures. Specialty chefs make appearances and introduce patrons to dishes from around the world, right from the Center’s commercial test-kitchen. An inherent goal of the Culinary Literacy Center is to improve patron health by inspiring them to prepare healthy meals through interactive demonstrations. This education extends to the children’s area, which incorporates playful seating that features healthy produce.

Story Center – Woodneath Library Center
The Story Center is a hub for budding authors and storytellers, a place for them to come together and perfect their crafts. A new, state-of-the-art auditorium supports the art of storytelling and is the ideal location for hosting guest speakers or connecting with other authors around the world. The form of the auditorium is influenced by the topography of the surrounding farmland, with an undulating ceiling at varied depths to emulate fields in various growth cycles

Three women on stage during a conference
Even during the first phase of renovations, MCPL staff and patrons quickly found their new favorite reading nooks, and each library became a more functional asset for the more than 840,000 members of the community. We are grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this major transformation for MCPL, especially with our partners at Sapp, JE Dunn, Olsson, and True Engineering.