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Designing A Legacy: A New Belmont Public Library

Architect Stewart Roberts believes good building features will make for happy residents.

As plans move forward for one local architectural firm was chosen to propose a design, Johnson Roberts Associates.

If the town decides to replace the original 1965 structure – that vote could be as soon as next year but more likely in two to three – Johnson Roberts will compete with other firms for designing the new building.

Meanwhile, the Johnson Roberts preliminary design, created by architect and partner Stewart Roberts, is now a starting point for library officials, town government, citizens and patrons to agree on what the new building should look like or, rather, be like.

For its ardent advocates, a library, perhaps more so than other civic buildings, is a home rather than a place.

A library's importance to society can be seen through the donations of Andrew Carnegie of more than 1,500 libraries across the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the first of his libraries had over its entrance, “Let there be light.”

Belmont Patch reached Stewart Roberts of Johnson Roberts in his Somerville office.

Patch: You’ve designed courts, schools, colleges, churches, and town halls. You’ve restored and preserved historic buildings. Of all the kinds of buildings Johnson Roberts designs, what draws you to libraries?

Roberts: It is particularly rewarding to work a building that you know will make a difference to the community for many years. I feel fortunate  for  the opportunity to work on so many. 

We believe that libraries are special places. As architects, we know that the design of a building impacts those who enter it in subtle and profound ways. And libraries sometime serve the community a century or more. Designing a library is the firm’s legacy to the future.

Patch: Your firm’s web site has a large collection of postcards of libraries, both domestic and foreign.

Roberts: Many years ago my wife and partner Karla Johnson and I started collecting postcard views of historic buildings. When I began working on additions to historic libraries, I developed an interest in the postcard collection about libraries. Recently Christian Schaller in our office has added to the collection and maintains our library postcard website, with over a thousand libraries.

Patch: Do you have a guiding philosophy?

Roberts: We believe that buildings make a significant contribution to the quality of a community. Public buildings like libraries help shape the way a community sees itself.  We strive to design libraries appropriate for their surroundings and say something about the culture and heritage of their communities. 

Beyond the accessibility and convenience, the design should encourage people to get more out of their lives.

Patch: These are tight times for family and municipal budgets. Is a new library worth the investment?

Roberts: Actually libraries are needed even more in recessions. Library usage is up during tight times, statistics show, not down. The community turns to the library for entertainment and diversion, for sure. The latest magazines, the latest best sellers, recent movies and TV series are also here, without paying Amazon or Netflix for the privilege.

But libraries are also centers for job searching, resume building, and exploring educational opportunities. Interested in a company? The library has resources, such as Business Reference Suite. Do you want to learn a foreign language, a valuable skill in the global economy? The library allows patrons to share language programs on DVDs, programs out of reach for many families. Libraries also provide computers for patron use. Many people still do not own a computer or cannot afford one.

I am reminded that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote 'Fahrenheit 451' at his local library.

Patch: Granted these resources are useful, but what is wrong with the present building providing them?

Roberts: The current library building, undersized and outdated, limits the quality of library services.   We have looked carefully at the possibility of renovating the existing library, but given the site constraints and the inflexibility of the current building, renovation is expensive, without providing the best value for the Town of Belmont. 

Both in print and in testimony, our firm has shown that refurbishing the present library up to recent building codes, while absorbing more books and materials, would require millions of dollars.

These dollars, we think, would be better spent on a new building that could serve the community for decades. There are also state grants for new libraries, not repaired ones.

Patch: With the digitizing of information and the arrival of devices, such as iPad and Kindle, couldn’t a wireless area, even a Starbucks, become a virtual library, let alone someone’s home?

 Roberts: I think that iPads and Kindles are wonderful devices, but they are primarily a new technology for selling and consuming media. Libraries are about sharing, materials and experiences.

Even if you are comfortable letting your two year old use an iPad to read a children’s book, that doesn’t  replace  the experience a child has in visiting the library or participating in one of the many children’s programs.  You can’t do these easily at a Starbucks.

Nor are emails and twitter replacements for book discussion groups, collaborative learning experiences, and lectures at the library.  In this electronic age, it is still important to have a place to get together with others.  

The library director and staff plan the programs for a wide range of patrons. The professional librarians in reference and circulation help users find vital information, in the stacks or on the Internet. 

iPads and Kindles no doubt will change the distribution of knowledge. But in the end, a library is a community for learning and sharing.

By the way, the new library will have space for a café, if you’d like coffee or tea when you visit.

Patch: What impact will your proposed design of the Belmont Memorial Library have on patrons, visitors and employees?

Roberts: The main reading spaces are located along Concord Ave so that, as people go by, they can see the activities inside.  Children can see their kinds of activities in the Children’s Room, as can the teens see theirs in the young adult room, or the adults observe theirs in the reference and reading rooms.

When you walk through the main door to the library, you will be presented with the latest books and media in a space, designed to encourage the fun of recreational browsing. 

Patch: Architecture is a serious business, with buildings a community lives with for decades or a century. Is it true that you also design birdhouses?

Roberts: Yes, we do design birdhouses. It’s for fun, but the same principle applies: a good design makes for happy residents.

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