Every so often, you encounter a building that just astounds you with its perfection, and if you’re lucky, it’s a building you can actually spend time in (not a million-dollar penthouse, for example). The new East Library in Milwaukee—completed just months ago—is absolutely that astounding, especially when you consider that so many libraries are decades old, dreary relics. These pictures tell the East Library’s story, but I’ll add some context too.
First, a word about the neighborhood where this library is located. I wrote a profile of a nearby intersection for Urban Milwaukee, which will give you a good idea of the area, but to summarize: It is a dense, popular neighborhood filled with restaurants, bars, grocery stores and residences. Located on the East Side of Milwaukee, the area trends younger (a university is fairly nearby) but has many families and seniors too. It’s connected to several bus lines and well-used traffic arteries. It is ripe for a public library and it had one for quite some time, but that library wasn’t built to meet current needs and its dark, low-ceilings and brick walls were far from inviting.
The new East Library has truly embraced its modern role–as a place for people from all backgrounds to study, work, get help, hang out, use computers and find books. The space is constructed around a large, flexible meeting room and an open study area with computers, a fireplace, couches and tons of desk/chair configurations. There’s a corner for teens to hang out, a small conference room for meetings and homework or job search help, and a section for books.
Books are, of course, present in this library. However, they are not the focal point, and that’s okay. I pick up several books at this library every week (sometimes more than once a week) and because of the reserve/hold system, it doesn’t matter that the shelves are sparse in this location. I just reserve the books I want online and wait for them to be transferred from any library in the system over to the East Library. If the book is currently on the shelves at another library, that process usually takes just 2 or 3 days–the time it would take for a book to be delivered if you purchased it online (or faster). I get an email notification when the book has arrived and then I just head over there to pick it up. Most library systems have this process in place, so unless your ideal library visit involves extensive browsing, it’s not a big deal that this library only has a few books. That doesn’t make it any less of a library.
One of my favorite facets of the East Library is its entrance. The entrance is a gorgeous, seamless extension of the exterior facade and surrounding greenery. It invites pedestrians, wheelchair users and bikers (who can use an on-site bike rack) to enter from the surrounding streets, and the library is located on a corner for maximum visability. The Library’s small parking lot in the back also has a walkway to the other side of the main set of doors, which allows both drivers and pedestrians to enter with ease.
As you pass through the main doors, you are greeted with bulletin boards full of community postings, as well as a smooth bench at which to sit as you gather your belongings or wait for a bus. Once inside the central atrium, a large, welcoming desk with the word “Ask” on it, is occupied by a friendly library employee. The automated book return is to the left and the large classroom space is to the right.
Just past the greeting desk are automated self check-outs (which operate easily and perfectly, unlike the self check-outs at grocery stores that seem to crash every time I use them). The Hold shelf is also near the front so that people stopping by the library can easily grab their Hold items, check them out, and be on their way. Also near the front is a children’s book and play area and a librarians’ desk. Finally, there’s a kiosk from which to check out laptops for use anywhere in the library, free of charge.
The middle of the library is occupied by a selection of books from many genres, and the back half of the space opens into that large study area I mentioned already. The color scheme of the interior and exterior plays on modern metals, but also utilizes a bright, vivacious orange theme throughout. Overall, everything in the library is easy to find and use. It meets the needs of the modern reader, student, child, worker and job searcher in a manner that is accessible and inviting to people of all backgrounds.
Of note also is what lies above the library. Through a partnership with the government and local developers, an apartment complex was built above the library, offering one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Because the apartments and the library were built at the same time, there is a seamless, congruent look to the building. Going the direction of so many new apartments and condos in Milwaukee, these ones are not cheap (one bedrooms starting at $1,000+). However, the pricing indicates the rising popularity of a neighborhood like this—one with public amenities, restaurants, parks and walkability.
I’m so glad this is the library I get to go to every week. It’s a joy to spend time there and the facility is easy to use for everyone who wants to. On Monday, I’m starting a new job working remotely, so I think I’ll be spending a lot more time here in the coming months. More on that soon!
I invite you to take a moment to stop by your public library this week and pick up a book. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, you should definitely check out the East Library. It does not disappoint.