An obvious first step in the process of designing any building is to first define what it is at its core: How will it be used by the people who will spend time in it? As designers of libraries, this is a question THA staff grapple with frequently. Library programs and needs are in a state of flux right now, largely due to ever-evolving technology. The old adage of a library simply being a place to check out books no longer paints the complete picture.
And yet sometimes maybe it’s worth taking a step back – perhaps way back – to the origins of an idea or place, a library in this instance. Regardless of technological changes, libraries are still about information and education – which can and do (at least in part) still come from books.
But what about the homeless population – many of whom don’t have identification and proof of address and therefore can’t use public library services? How can a library serve these people who are pushed to the margins in more ways than we often realize?
As a lover of literature and an advocate for social equity, I can’t help but be enamored and deeply humbled by the efforts of Portland’s Street Librarians, Laura Moulton and Sue Zalokar, to address this question. Their library, Street Books, is a “bicycle-powered mobile library, serving people who live outside,” here in our fair city. Street Books is coming upon its two-year anniversary this spring, and has checked out hundreds of paperback books to many people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a simple pleasure that many of us take for granted – reading for enjoyment and/or self-improvement, maybe even a temporary escape from reality.
During the last (nearly) two years, Street Books has evolved from a hopeful and optimistic experiment to a well-used library whose collection has grown so much it now requires an additional storage space – generously donated by Ecotrust. And beyond physically lending books, the act of engaging in human contact – through conversation and literature – with a population often ignored, makes Street Books a perfect example of the “community space” we strive to create with our designs of library buildings.
The ultimate goal of our design work here at THA is to positively affect society, from the community level right down to the individual level. In that sense, I see Street Books as a great reminder for us to continue to deeply consider the humans our designs impact – even, perhaps, those they exclude.
I, for one, am grateful to Street Books for filling in the gaps that our library buildings sometimes leave.
This short film tells the story more aptly than any words can hope to:
Photo: Courtesy of Street Books