Oh the Things I Learned on Mulberry Street

“We wanted a library with a traditional look outside but an interior design that would make an 18-year-old say “wow” when he or she walked inside,” says Dr. Charles Boehms, executive vice president and provost of Georgetown College in Kentucky.

Georgetown”s new Anna Ashcraft Ensor Learning Resource Center does just that. Taking a page from today’s large format bookstores, the Center’s front door fronts on downtown’s Mulberry Street and beckons students, as well as community residents, into the Mulberry Street Cafe, which offers design motifs that recall the first Dr. Seuss book: Oh The Things I Learned On Mulberry Street.

The college obtained permission to use Dr. Seuss themes in the design of the Center’s cafe as well as in its operation. For example, several times a week, the cafe holds readings for children from Dr. Seuss books. The cafe even sells Dr. Seuss ties.

In addition to the storefront cafe, the Center’s design includes a teleconferencing center, conference rooms, a media suite, computer rooms that accommodate individual research as well as classes and expansive reading lounges - one with a working natural gas fireplace and relatively expensive handmade cherry wood furniture.

The 64,000 sq. ft. Center houses 240,000 books and 1,050 periodicals on four floors.

Once conceived largely as storage places for books, contemporary college and university libraries offer bright, attractive reading, gathering and group study areas equipped with Internet connections, as well as storage for books and periodicals.

Today’s new and still evolving designs for campus libraries require a different style of library furniture. Gone is the utilitarian wood and plastic furniture of the 1960s and 1970s. Here for at least 20 or 30 years is more durable, more attractive, more flexible and, often, more expensive custom-made furniture, designed to accommodate the library’s new group study and advanced technology functions.

The Georgetown’s Mulberry Street Cafe, for example, features arts and crafts style, post-modern seating, wooden tables and chairs, residing on an attractive tile floor.

The lounges offer casual seating areas with large leather sofas, easy chairs and end tables.

Eight group study rooms accommodate six people with cherry wood tables and chairs. The media center supplies televisions, VCRs and laptop computers that can be carried or rolled into the group study rooms.

Modular cherry wood study carrels, configured in rows of three, dot the floors throughout the center and feature higher desktops tailored to the proper height of a computer screen. “The modular design allows us to take the carrels apart and reconfigure them whenever we want,” says Mary Margaret Lowe, director of Library Services at Georgetown.

The furniture designs also account for requirements related to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Structural components beneath study tables, for example, provide space for a wheel chair’s arms to slip beneath the tabletops.

The furniture accommodates students” technology needs, too. With a seating capacity greater than 300, the facility’s furniture, walls and floors can accommodate 365 connections to the campus Internet network, via 180 computer-equipped stations and 185 data ports, where Center users can plug their own computers into the network.

“Changing technology is driving changes in library design and library furniture in colleges,” says James Kienle, AIA, a principal in the Indianapolis office of HNTB Architects, Engineers and Planners. “At Georgetown College, for example, we designed two types of computer-oriented furniture: one is a traditional carrel with a computer, and the other is a table with data ports for the computers. The tables accommodate group study among students who can each plug in and use their computers while working together on a project.”

HNTB worked closely with Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers of Auburn, Maine, in the design of the furniture for Georgetown’s Center.

A high-end furniture maker, Moser has found a growing market in college libraries. “The college and university furniture market is diverse,” notes Aaron Moser, contract sales manager for the company. “But there are common characteristics, too. Library furniture design must satisfy four basic goals: aesthetics, utility, comfort and longevity. In our business, we’ve always focused on these characteristics.”

The challenge in today’s market for companies like Moser is to find ways to incorporate technological utility without compromising aesthetics, comfort and longevity. “We look for ways to add modular components that will house wires but will not affect the rest of the furniture design,” Moser says. “Suppose you have a table that must handle six fiber optic cables. We don’t want to go from the architecture, into the furniture, out of the furniture, and into the computer. Instead, we’ll add modular moldings or slats that house the wiring.

“I think that areas of the library that are most heavily burdened with technology are those that need to remain the most flexible,” Moser continues. “The furniture must first serve the needs of people and then deal with technology, because people don’t change, but technology does. With a modular approach to wiring, it becomes possible to change the technological components of the furniture without changing the furniture. You can’t do that if the technology is built into the furniture itself.”

Bruce Anderson agrees. A project manager with HNTB, Anderson worked with Moser on the design of the Georgetown Center’s furniture. “The college market expects its furniture to last longer than the technology it uses,” Anderson says. “Only 20 years ago, students used typewriters in typing areas of libraries. Today they use computers. Who knows what they will be using in 2020? Wireless palm pilots and digital phones? You don’t have to plug wireless technology into data ports. So it’s important to look ahead when designing furniture for today’s libraries.”

In other words, building technology into library furniture may mean replacing the furniture when the technology evolves to another level.

Careful planning can prevent that problem from arising in the future.

And that’s just one of the things you can learn on Mulberry Street.

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