Groups offer input on design for new BR library

Screening rooms, a café, versatility and business accessibility should be key elements of the new $19 million downtown library, several interested groups told library staff in a series of closed-door meetings held late last year.

Library staff and the architect for the project conducted more than a dozen “stakeholder and potential partner” informational meetings that began in late August and ran through December, said East Baton Rouge Parish Library Assistant Director Mary Stein, who attended the meetings.

The meetings, which Stein called “brainstorming sessions,” were not open to the public or media. The first set of meetings were held with pairs of Library Board of Control members. The meetings were limited to two board members at a time to ensure no public meeting laws were violated, Stein said.

Outside organizations, including the Center for Planning Excellence, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Downtown Development District, the Greater Baton Rouge Arts Council, Visit Baton Rouge, residents of Spanish Town and Beauregard Town, the Greater Baton Rouge Literacy Coalition and others, were invited to provide input on the design of the new library, Stein said.

Longtime library critic John Berry said he was troubled that none of the meetings were open to the public.

“She (Stein) said there would be public meetings,” Berry said.

Stein said library staff plans to host at least one public meeting in the late spring to solicit input and present ideas on the plans.

The brainstorming meetings late last year resulted in a wish list of potential features, she said.

Suggestions ranged from putting LED lights on the building’s bicycle rack to putting a garden on the roof, Stein said.

There was “overwhelming enthusiasm” for putting a café in the library, she said.

“The general thinking about building libraries today is, if you can, try to go for the Barnes and Noble approach,” Stein said. “Everybody says ‘we want a café in our branch.’”

Stein said the library system itself would not run a café.

“The library is not in the food business,” she said.

There is precedent for the idea of a café as part of a library. The new main library on Goodwood Road will include a café run by the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission.

Stein said a café could be combined with a bookstore that features the work of local authors and artists.

Some also suggested screening rooms for use by Baton Rouge’s burgeoning film industry, Stein said. The rooms could be used to show films during festivals, she said.

Stein said she envisions a “Maker’s Space” in the library, where individuals or groups could collaborate on a variety of creative projects, including film and music. Such a space could include a video-editing bay or sound studio, she said.

Several suggestions for ways to make the library more inviting and accessible for businesses and business people were offered, Stein said. Library staff already planned to request that rooms suitable for business meetings be included in the design, but some groups suggested that the rooms be made available to businesses for a fee.

“No meeting room that we currently have is available to a commercial endeavor,” Stein said.

Suggestions also included space for individual business people to work, she said, adding the library is considering “business pods” where a person could set up and work on his or her own computer.

The library also plans to offer an array of business databases such as Standard and Poor’s, Morningstar and ReferenceUSA that will be featured at the River Center Branch, Stein said.

Lauren Hatcher, a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, confirmed that officials with that organization met with library staff about the plans.

BRAC wanted to ensure “that the facility considers and meets the needs of the business community from technology and training to meeting space capacity,” Hatcher said an emailed statement.

Stein said the library’s rooms must be versatile and also consider the needs of families and children.

“We do want our rooms to do double- or triple-duty,” she said. “Robust programming is the key.”

Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said one of his main concerns is the library’s appearance.

“It’s a very public space there at Town Square,” he said. “You have the Shaw Center, the Old State Capital — it’s a very important corner.”

Rhorer said he wants to see a building that is welcoming and makes good use of both its indoor and outdoor space.

Boo Thomas, president and chief executive officer for the Center for Planning Excellence, attended one of the meetings.

“I think it becomes another one of the pieces in a community gathering space,” she said, adding that libraries must provide more than books. “The library could be the digital home for a lot of neighborhood groups.”

Stein cautioned that many of the ideas that were floated would eventually be jettisoned for one reason or another.

The meetings held in the fall were just the “pre-design phase,” Stein said.

“The things we heard just cemented our ideas, there were very few things that were brand new,” she said. “In the brainstorming phase, everything is possible and you can afford it all.”

In addition to the meetings, LSU graduate students working with the library solicited input from several other organizations, including representatives from the Old State Capital, the USS Kidd, several downtown churches, Teach for America, City Year and others, Stein said.