Reimagining Our Libraries

Robbins Library rendering picture
Fox Library rendering image
Why reimagine?

Public libraries must adapt and stay relevant to all members of our complex society. In the twenty-five years since the Robbins Library doubled in size with the 1992 addition, Arlington’s demographics have changed dramatically–and so have public library services across the country. Since 1992 an entire generation of library users has come of age. Digital natives themselves have children who’ve never known a world without smart phones and tablets. According to the Arlington Master Plan, in the last fifteen years the number of families with children has grown to 48%, and the school enrollment increases are well-documented. We hear a wide variety of languages spoken in the library–at least 15% of Arlingtonians were born outside of the United States according to 2010 census data. How can we improve wayfinding to better serve brand-new visitors and people whose first language isn’t English? Library collections have grown to support non-traditional materials like the Discover It Yourself collection in the Children’s Room and the Library of Things collection for adults. We now offer sewing machines, kitchen gadgets and other tools to support our patrons’ hobbies and interests. The library of 1992 wasn’t designed to accommodate these unique collections, nor was it designed with flexible spaces or bookshelves and furniture that can be easily moved. For many years, the library was a place that catered to individual study. That need is still there, but increasingly, so is the need for spaces where people can work collaboratively. We see people working collaboratively in many areas, but especially in the Teen area which is often over capacity. Our two study rooms at Robbins are in constant use. Normally so are our community rooms, where people gather to explore arts and culture, promote civic engagement, educate and socialize. In 2017 the Robbins Library building turned 125, and the Edith M. Fox Branch Library had its centennial. The libraries share an incredible history and pride of place in Arlington, and Arlington residents expect a high level of service from the Town, from great schools to efficient public works and thoughtful community planning. The libraries are part of the mix that makes Arlington such an attractive place to live and work.

The future of our buildings

In the spring of 2017, library administration and trustees announced a space study and design project, “Reimagining Our Libraries,” with the goal of creating a vision for the future. Hundreds of residents contributed ideas at two public meetings and through an online survey, and a working group was assembled of trustees, representatives from community support groups (the Arlington Libraries Foundation, the Friends of the Robbins Library, the Friends of Fox Library), library administration and staff, and Facilities Department staff. The working group was charged with guiding the process through to the schematic design phase with the chosen firm of Ann Beha Architects. 

Through public meetings and surveys, a multitude of ideas emerged about what should be preserved and what could be improved in our libraries. The first task of the working group was to sift the feedback and determine the problems that could be addressed within the project’s scope. Examples included a larger and more distinct space for teens at the Robbins, more public restrooms, more study and conference rooms, a renovated Children’s Room with a dedicated storytime space, and improved lighting and way-finding at Robbins. Among the most frequently voiced desires for Fox: a fully accessible building with updated infrastructure, bathrooms, meeting spaces, an area for teens, and more seating for adults.

Examples of community desires that fell outside the project’s scope include increased parking options at Robbins and Fox and more hours for both libraries. On some wish lists was a retail café inside the Robbins. That idea morphed into a space with café style seating in which library patrons, especially those with small children, could eat snacks in comfort.

In all, the process of formulating program goals and determining design recommendations required five meetings of the Reimagining Our Libraries working group in addition to multiple library staff meetings with the architect over the course of the year. The result: a bold plan for the libraries that reconciles community-led vision and community-led values. Schematic designs were shared at two public meetings in the summer of 2018.

To achieve this plan, it will be necessary to examine various avenues of funding. Since the library’s founding days in the 1890s, a mix of public and private funding has worked to make the library a pillar of support for families, students, and all who live and work in Arlington. We now rank among the highest statewide in circulation, children’s program attendance, and e-content circulation. What will it take to keep pace with the Town’s evolution and reach new heights?

Library administration and trustees are grateful to have access to information and resources on the state and local levels to help us eventually make these visions a reality, with special acknowledgement of the work of the Arlington Libraries Foundation and the Friends of the Robbins Library.

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