Demystifying the Library Building Process

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Libraries are often the heart of a community, offering vital resources through technology, information, and social gathering spaces. As libraries continue to grow in importance, more communities are expanding existing libraries or building new. Yet the planning process can be daunting, especially for those new to the brick-and-mortar building process.

Planning a library is a community endeavor that involves buy-in from diverse stakeholders through multiple planning phases--from early market research through budgeting, design, and move-in. Before moving forward, consider the following steps in planning your library.


Successful libraries start with a long-term Strategic Plan that clearly defines your library mission, service area, programming, and finances. Every library planning process requires a strong leader who raises consensus among stakeholders, community members, and legislators. Know your demographics and who your library serves--this is the first step to determining what kind of library you need.


An architect or planner can convert your Strategic Plan into a Feasibility Study that identifies the shape and scope of the library, program, square footage, services, budget, and site selection. A solid Feasibility Study incorporates community feedback.


As libraries move away from bonding, fundraising is becoming increasingly important in library planning. Establishing a Foundation or turning to a fundraising consultant can help libraries identify potential funding sources and realistic timelines. Final funding will determine what part of the Feasibly Study can be completed now, trimmed back, or moved to a future phase.


An architect gives tangible form to the Feasibility Study as the design evolves through several stages.

  • Schematic Design is the early design phase that establishes basic architectural concepts, scale, and aesthetic image. Presentation boards from Schematic Design can be used in fundraising to generate excitement about the library.
  • Design Development, as the name suggests, further develops the design concepts, materials, aesthetics, and building infrastructure.
  • Construction Documents prepares detailed construction drawings to send to contractors for bids.
  • Furniture Selection identifies the furnishings, materials and colors for each space within the library.



Through these steps, libraries can invigorate the community by creating a valuable destination.

The recently opened Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) East Branch, for instance, is part of a new mixed-used housing/commercial development that creates a 21st-century environment for community gathering and learning. The library organizes the collections around a marketplace spine that provides access to library staff, new materials, and other resources. Additionally, the East Branch reuses artifacts from the former library to create a sense of place, such as decorative glass panels that inspire the interior material palette with an illuminated ribbon of color.

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Similarly, the Columbia Heights Library creates an urban focal point for a diverse community in downtown Columbia Heights, Minnesota. The library establishes a strong streetfront presence that welcomes community members walking to nearby businesses. Inside, the library offers a variety of flexible spaces, technology and resources for individuals and groups in a collaborative environment. Notably, the library incorporates several sustainable features, including a landscaped bio-retention area that absorbs and cleanses rainwater run-off from the parking lot.

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While these steps provide planning guidelines, the specifics will vary from library to library. The Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) is a multi-branch system that customizes each branch to the individual neighborhood. As a large system, MPL navigates a steady cycle of renovations, upgrades, and new construction. Columbia Heights, on the other hand, is a small, single-building system that approached the building process for the first time in more than 40 years. Each library benefitted from strong planning.   

Before beginning the planning process, consider the following:

  • Engage diverse stakeholders--from community members to legislators--throughout the planning and design process.
  • Develop a Feasibility Study to identify project scope.
  • Map out the planning processes and schedule sequence of events.
  • Position your library as an investment in community vitality.

Topics: Arts & Culture, Community

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