On June 1, 1998, the Memphis Public Library and Information Center (MPLIC)--then known as the Memphis-Shelby County Public Library and Information Center--opened a branch library at 1929 South Third Street, in Memphis, Tennessee. Designed by architect Mike Wells, the new, 11,000 square foot South Branch building replaced a much smaller branch on Norwood Avenue. The new South Branch provided seating for 129 individuals, housed 32,000 items, had two meeting rooms with a seating capacity of 37 persons per room, and three study rooms with a total seating capacity of 18. The total employee complement was 9.5, including 4 librarians and 5.5 staff members.
Today, the South Branch has 38,000 items. The staff has shrunk, somewhat, to two librarians and three staff members. The facility has evolved, as it now houses 15 computer terminals. The three study rooms are still there, though wipe boards have been added to facilitate collaborative workspace. The meeting room is largely unchanged. The MPLIC invested in a laptop projector to facilitate the teaching of classes and for recreational purposes such as showing movies. Shelving has been relocated, and in some cases, eliminated. For the most part, the changes have been ordinary in the grand scheme of things.
So what? What makes this branch library special compared to any 11,000 square foot branch in any other urban library system in America? 1929 South Third Street is a store front in an outdoor retail plaza. Cricket, Family Dollar, Kroger, H&R Block, and Regions Bank all share a common parking lot and a (mostly) contiguous building. There are also local retailers, like Hamdi’s Wear and the Southgate Wig Shop. Inside, the architectural concept is very open with high ceilings. Walking into the facility for the first time conjures up images of a bookstore rather than a neighborhood library.
Urban and rural library systems across the country are revisiting the retail location model in a variety of sizes. In June 2013, the Aurora Public Library in Colorado opened a 600 square foot branch in a Kmart (Wells, 2013). In December, 2011, the McAllen Public Library (TX) opened its main library in a 40,000 square foot former Walmart. A little over a year ago, the Rodman Public Library in Alliance, Ohio, opened a branch next to a Giant Eagle grocery store (Hall, 2012). The American Library Association even has a wiki page dedicated to library spaces in shopping malls. The utility of this library model has clearly contributed to its proliferation.
The retail model has several advantages. Retail locations help “stretch tight budgets through repurposing spaces” and exposing more people to the library experience because of the “steady stream of traffic” in these areas (Schaper, 2013). Stretching the library’s budget is even more important in the post-recession era. According to the American Library Association’s 2012 State of American Libraries report, 65% of public libraries had flat or decreased operating budgets (ALA, 2012). Furthermore, according to Marie Radford, one of the five factors that affect patron behavior in approaching a librarian is proximity (Cassell & Hiremath, 2009). A smaller retail location potentially increases the proximity of patron to a librarian inside the facility. A branch retail location potentially increases the proximity of patron to librarian outside the facility, as well. Finally, it appears as though even more collaboration is on the horizon. According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, one way that 21st century libraries can evolve to meet community needs is by embracing new approaches that involve highly collaborative partnerships and co-created experiences (2009). The possibility of public-private partnerships and co-created experiences increases with the use of outpost and retail models.
It may come as no surprise to many that Memphis, like many metropolitan areas, is dealing with the issue of urban blight. Retail libraries could be an effective tool in combating blight and staging urban renewal. Some suggest that placing libraries in shopping areas can invigorate retail environments (Schaper, 2013). If this is indeed the case, perhaps the same kind of libraries could be used to combat blighted retail areas. In the case of the South Branch, an argument can be made that it has helped to anchor its current retail location—thereby preventing blight. Locating the library near strong retail partners like Family Dollar and Kroger has no doubt enhanced the fight against blight, but the City of Memphis’s continued support and commitment to the location has also had a positive impact on the retail center. A thriving South Branch defends against blight and decay.
The retail model also has several disadvantages. Most casual observers will notice that the South Branch’s retail location appears disjointed from the surrounding neighborhood. Although it is adjacent to an apartment complex, the library is not physically located at the heart of a residential neighborhood. Also, a library system has little control over the neighboring businesses—and retail turnover can be high. Although this turnover can be especially acute in a retail area, the same can be said, to a lesser degree, of any neighborhood. Overall, though, the positive aspects outweigh the negative ones.
Perhaps urban libraries can assume a larger role in the fight against retail blight? In lieu of expensive capital building projects, municipalities could deliberately place library locations in pre-existing, unoccupied retail spaces and use the savings to invest in technological and material enhancements. Retail strip and indoor malls help mitigate costs by including benefits like parking or security. The library can share the costs of these services, rather than bear the burden alone (Schaper, 2013). In the case of the South Branch Library, parking lot maintenance and a mobile security unit are provided by the Southgate Shopping Center. A medium-range lease may be enough to encourage retail partners without locking the library into a long-term location that is subject to neighborhood migratory patterns. In short, the library can get out of an untenable location in a relatively short period of time. If executed properly, the furniture and materials in a small retail location can be relocated to a new location to accommodate shifting populations.
It appears as though there is already an undercurrent of support for the retail model in the field. According to an OCLC 2012 member survey, 45% of library staff polled wanted a change to the current configuration of service points (OCLC, 2012). Of those 45%, 18% wanted more branches while 23% wanted more service points, but fewer traditional branches (OCLC 2012). 45% of librarians polled in the same survey responded that providing Internet access was the top priority for their library system (OCLC, 2012). The outpost or retail library model offers an opportunity to meet all of these priorities by facilitating a greater number of technology access points at a reduced cost—while reducing the number of traditional facilities.
Sixteen years after it opened its doors, the South Branch of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center remains a successful example of the execution of the retail model. The simplicity of the original design has facilitated changes in response to shifting demands of the service population. In the fall of 2013, the library installed 15 new carrels and computers without any interruption of service. A public art mural depicting Memphis icons was added in December 2013. Plans are in the works to improve information literacy offerings in pursuit of eliminating digital inequalities that exist within the South Branch Library's service area.
In an era when people are continually asking “what’s next,” perhaps the answer to the future of library design really does lie in the strategies of the past. The South Branch of the Memphis Public Library would seem to suggest so. As libraries become more of a concept than physical space, the retail model would fit somewhere along the leading edge of that evolution. At the very least, the South Branch serves as an example of how the retail model helps libraries, might fight blight, and can better serve communities, thereby achieving multiple municipal goals.
American Library Association. (2012, April 7). Public libraries. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/americaslibraries/soal2012/public-libraries
Cassell, K.A., & Hiremath, U. (2009). Reference and information services in the 21st century. New York: Neal-Schuman.
Hall, M. (2012, October 2). Rodman library branch to relocate from Carnation Mall. The CantonRep. Retrieved from http://www.cantonrep.com/x1784775374/Rodman-library-branch-to-relocate-from-Carnation-Mall
Institute of Museum and Library Services, Office of Strategic Partnerships. (2009). Museums, libraries, and 21st Century skills. (IMLS-2009-NAI-01). Washington, D.C.
OCLC. (2012). A snapshot of priorities and perspectives: U.S. public libraries. Retrieved from http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/oclc/reports/us-libraries/214758usb-A-Snapshot-of-Priorities-and-Perspectives.pdf
Schaper, L. (2013, June 17). Repurposing retail. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/06/buildings/lbd/repurposing-retail-library-by-design/#_
Smith, S. (2012, September 1). Big-box store has new life as an airy public library. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/02/us/former-walmart-in-mcallen-is-now-an-airy-public-library.html?_r=0
Wells, J. (2013, July 19.). Colorado library opens outpost inside Kmart. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/07/library-services/colorado-library-opens-outpost-inside-kmart/
Steve Shackelford graduated from San Jose State University, receiving a Master of Library and Information Science degree. He serves as the Agency Manager in charge of the Cossitt and South Branches of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.