Location! Location! Location! The Albert Solheim Library is Forefront at PNCA’s New Campus

Written by Kate Rubick, Lewis & Clark College
Photos by Dan Kelley, Lewis & Clark College

Approaching the Pacific Northwest College of Art, a renovated 1909 building in the North Park Blocks of Portland, I was impressed by its beauty — the ground floor is wrapped in high windows with curved tops, that were painstakingly recovered and restored. And through the windows, passersby can see bookshelves and lamps, people engaged in reading and study; the view inside is unmistakably the library.    

(Click each thumbnail in the gallery below for the full photo and caption information.)

PNCA has occupied the new campus since February 2015, but the library was not actually completed until summer 2015, so for the library staff, this has been the first academic year in their new space. When they first moved in, a large portion of the library was inaccessible unless you were wearing a hard hat! They had a service desk and could check out materials to students and faculty — even though most of their collections were located off-site at the old campus. Look for a piece — forthcoming in OLA Quarterly — by Library Assistant, Linden How and Sara Bystrom, Library Access Services Manager, on how they lived through the transition.  

The final product was well worth the initial chaos. Natural light floods the atrium, with two-story ceilings and a wall of gorgeous original windows one one side juxtaposed with a cable-suspended concrete mezzanine balcony on the other. The effect of this mezzanine — a whole new floor in the restored historic building — is breathtaking. It gives the library a feeling of openness and chic Bohemian charm.    

And it is extremely easy to find — just enter the building, turn left and walk in! It could not be any more prominently featured, and this is undeniably “one of the best things about our new space,” according to Technical Services and Archives Librarian, Serenity Ibsen. Ibsen graciously showed me around around on a rainy afternoon (along with my Watzek Library colleague, Dan Kelley, who took the photos). She shared her thoughts about the new Albert Solheim Library and how it is being used.  

There are two service points on opposite ends of the the first floor — the circulation desk and an IT Help Desk (a popular relocation of this service). In between is an atrium, called the Crumpacker Family Reading Room, furnished with high-backed privacy seating and arc reading lamps. There is also a cluster of workstations and a long counter space with plugins and a view out the windows. On the afternoon we visited, the reading chairs were empty, but there were people at the workstations and at the counter on laptops. Faculty and student art is on display, though one tradeoff of having so many high windows is that they have less wall-space than they did before for exhibits. Transparent sunshades prevent glare.

On the mezzanine level, there is a reference desk (the previous library did not have one), as well as several study rooms, which are heavily used. There is another long counter along the edge of the balcony, with a view of the windows and atrium. Much of the collection is also shelved on this floor. Ibsen told us that when the space first opened, there was one study nook with comfortable seating, but library staff felt this was insufficient. So they shifted the collection and took out several shelves to create two new nooks at either end of the balcony — one with an appealing turquoise sofa and grey chairs and another with two magenta upholstered chairs.  

(Click each thumbnail in the gallery below for the full photo and caption information.)

Ibsen describes herself as a “nester” and says that when she uses libraries she always seeks out places to sit that are tucked away. She has observed that many PNCA students have similar preferences, and she says she has noticed another advantage of locating seating in the stacks. “They look up from what they are doing and something entices them. Then you see them pulling a book from the shelf.” Of course, the PNCA Library has some very eye-catching books, including an extensive collection of graphic novels — shelved in close proximity to one of the nooks. Intermingling seating areas and and books helps facilitate contemplation and collision with collections. The addition of the two nooks on the mezzanine is a fine counterbalance to the more social space of the Crumpacker Family Reading Room.

One factor impacting the library space on the mezzanine it that there is no library elevator — only stairs. And since the mezzanine was added as a new floor, it is not serviced by the building’s existing elevators. There is a freight elevator, but it is outside the library and not open to the public. So wheelchair access to the mezzanine involves staff intervention, which is hardly ideal. Ibsen says that they are hoping to be able to install an ADA lift inside the library to alleviate this issue. “We clearly have some accessibility issues and are working to implement solutions,” she said. Working to reimagine older buildings comes with challenges like that. Other usability issues with the new building have been identified, and there is a community putting pressure on PNCA to make sure that these — and other grievances — are addressed. You can read an update on those grievances here

The remodel was designed by renowned architect and Portland native, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture. The building now occupied by PNCA was built as a federal post office, but also housed immigration and customs enforcement, U.S. Customs and other agencies over the years. The campus more than doubled in size in the new location, and so did the library. Linden How, sitting behind the circulation desk, said how much she loves the new space. “We have students who were used to the industrial look and feel of the old space and kind of miss it. But Ibsen was quick to add, “I don’t miss it at all.”

~ Kate Rubick, ACRL-OR Member at Large (2015-2017)
Instruction Services Librarian, Lewis & Clark College

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