Alyssa Guarino

Boston Breathes New Life Into Its Public Library

Alyssa Guarino

For Bostonians, the grand, gray structure of the Boston Public Library’s (BPL) Central Branch is an easily recognizable beacon of history and knowledge. In college, I found myself returning often not just to study and riffle through its impressive collection, but also to wander around and wonder at the majesty of the monolithic structure. However, the Central Branch’s Johnson building held much less appeal for me; compared to the Renaissance style and grandeur of other parts of the branch, the Johnson building’s was overshadowed by drab coloring, faded carpets and lack of lighting.

Other patrons and the trustees of the library felt similarly, sparking a $78-million renovation to the Central Branch. The renovation aimed to revamp the Johnson building and put the BPL “on the cutting edge of library services.” This three-year project was split into two phases: the first tackled rooms specifically intended for teens and children; the second refurbished the lower level, first floor, mezzanine and outer parts of the building. Prior to this new undertaking, the last major renovation to the branch was completed in 1971, when architect Phillip Johnson designed his eponymous building.

One hope for the renovation was to coax its younger patrons into more frequent visits. The new Teen Central room and Children’s Library room, opened in February of 2015, now feature bright walls, fun signs and murals, quirky furniture, and even stroller “parking.”

The Central Branch’s recent renovation wasn’t only needed for aesthetic reasons; the building lagged in terms of technology and even accessibility.

But the Johnson building is now better outfitted to continue the digitization work of its enormous inventory of rare books and manuscripts, as well as its special collections, which include the nearly 3,000-volume trove from John Adams’ personal library. The building has also doubled its offering of public computer workstations, and users can now choose between Windows and Mac. Increased accessibility options on computers include CCTV, a braille embosser and a text-to-audio converter. Patrons can even build their skills with tech classes covering computers, tablets and social media.

The library also encourages the flourishing of entrepreneurs with its revamped Rabb Lecture Hall and new Kirstein Business Library & Innovation Center, which offers print and digital resources, innovation-inspiring research space, and even classes and tutorials on the latest software.

The Central Branch has become a friendlier place to explore, starting with its brighter front entrance and cheery welcome center. The expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass panels offers much-needed natural light as well as a view of metropolitan Boylston Street.

The renovation is an engaging and colorful complement to this historic place of higher learning.

Did You Know?
The BPL’s assemblage of 23 million items is not the only impressive collection in the country. The New York Public Library holds over 51 million items, and the Library of Congress boasts over 162 million items!

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