The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 12, Number 1
Jan 1988


Keyes D. Metcalf. Planning Academic and Research Library Buildings. 2nd ed. by Philip D. Leighton and David C. Weber. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986. 630 pp. $60. ISBN 0-8389-3302-3.

Reviewed by M. A. Garrison and W. P. Lull
Mr. Lull is an assistant adjunct professor of building technology at New York University, and Ms. Garrison is an architect. They consult on the design of museums and libraries.

Keyes Metcalf's classic book, "Planning Academic and Research Library Buildings," written in the early 1960s and sponsored by the American Library Association, has been reissued, revised, and updated by Philip Leighton and David Weber. Mr. Metcalf's distinguished career included 60 years of experience in planning library spaces and hundreds of building projects.

The book is intended to assist many different individuals, who fall into two basic groups--the library professionals, and the design professionals: architects, engineers and consultants. It presents planning, programming, design, construction, and occupancy processes in chronological order. The book provides an excellent survey of the process and phases of planning for library buildings and provides much useful technical information useful for space planning and interior design. Read in its entirety, it will assist librarians and administrators in understanding the task before them in planning a library project.

The book is a singular resource for library planning, bringing a broad spectrum of information together. It has a glossary of construction terms and provides many good examples. Many actual library examples, with figures and floor plans, are used, adding substantially to the value of the material. It highlights many problems well but frequently fails to suggest solutions which the reader can use.

Unfortunately it is a textbook and not a reference book--it must be read in toto to have a complete and balanced understanding. In many cases it digresses into general architectural issues, suitable for an architectural student, which may confuse the library professional, since many of the digressions are not germane to good library design.

On some issues the book fails to be complete either for the design professional or for the library professional. Although the book covers the form of a planning project, it fails as a library project management guide. For example, it suggests using the excellent "Project Process" chart on page 7. With its "energy budget" aspects, and omission of several key library process issues, the chart is for a typical building and not a library. From this reviewer's experience in working with Mr. Tom McClellan (principal with McClellan and Copenhagen, the source for the project process chart), each type of project needs special project processes, and his chart is generic rather than specifically oriented to libraries.

Although the book attempts to encourage better library buildings in general, it could have achieved more success had it not been divided into two parts: one for the design professionals and one for library professionals. Currently, materials in this book that are useful to the design professionals are usually quite good but cumbersome to locate, and need reorganization or stronger indexing and cross-referencing. The portions useful to library professionals need to be strengthened and to have many areas clarified and elaborated, placing more emphasis on library design issues. The book also fails to give library professionals advice and information they need to avoid serious problems with library planning in the real world.

From our experience, some primary planning issues omitted from the library side are:

1) The design professionals, the architects, engineers and consultants work for the library professionals, not vice versa. The library design does not belong to the design professionals. The library professionals should make the design professionals explain every aspect of the design, and object to any part or expense that is not what was intended or programmed.

2) When selecting design professionals of any kind, the library client should call the library professionals and conservators involved with their recent library projects and find out the successes and failures of their previously built libraries. Even if they have never designed a library before, their previous clients should still be called to find out what they would have done differently.

3) The architectural profession is generally underpaid due to oversupply of architectural graduates and architectural firms. Architectural firms often have substantial staff turnover due to the boom and bust cycle of the construction industry.

4) The library client should write everything down that needs to be resolved, and be sure everyone gets a copy.

5) The client should also be wary of anything or anyone who wants to save "energy". With obvious exceptions (such as low light levels, minimum glazing, efficient motors), a good conservation environment for a library collection has a tendency to spend energy to save the books. Most energy conserving systems save energy at the expense of the books, with the "energy crisis" causing many library environment disasters, such as "watt-miser" fluorescent lamps, air economizers and daylighting.

Many library professionals have said that the marketing benefits that accrue to the architect of a library project may overshadow the need to provide a good library environment. In spite of statements to the contrary in the second edition of the book, Mr. Charles Cutter's warning that "Architects and librarians are natural enemies" is a point well taken. Mr. Metcalf's original impression that "there has been an unfortunate tendency in recent years on the part of some of the more capable and better-known architects to attempt to attract attention by glamorous and exciting buildings which subordinate function to other features" (p. 87) is an excellent warning to library clients.

The book discusses some of the practical energy and expansion problems with extravagant glass-box designs, but in that discussion misses the library-specific point that large expanses of glass usually create substantial visual glare and pose a danger to the collection through ultraviolet exposure and radiant heat dessication. The Butler University library by Yamasaki, cited in the book, is an excellent example of a truly beautiful building that had the unfortunate fate of being a library--they should have included a picture of the building, in addition to the floor plan on page 88, to show the wonderful facade that belies the poor functionality.

The book suggests referring mechanical design issues to the mechanical design professionals, citing their resources in the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Handbooks. The ASHRAE Handbooks offer precious little help in library design, barely two pages. Strong guidance and information beyond the ASHRAE Handbooks is needed. Most engineers who design mechanical systems are not extensively trained in the subtleties of system design; their systems training comes from experience. If they have not designed a library recently or correctly, then the design may not be what is needed. In the absence of detailed and specific environmental criteria, information and understanding, which this book does not adequately provide, the library will acquire a typical office building environment, ill-suited to preservation of the book collection.

Unfortunately, reading the heating, ventilating and air condition (HVAC) sections of the book can be counterproductive for the library professional. Water spray humidification, the only system discussed in the book, is generally recognized as inadequate and problematic for reliable humidification. By not discussing steam humidification, the book misses the chance to discuss several generally accepted guidelines for good steam systems. The dehumidification discussion is very misleading, calling dehumidification "difficult and expensive," completely missing the point that any conventional "air conditioning" system (even a window air conditioner) can dehumidify.

The discussion of gaseous pollution is limited, although for libraries this issue is very important. The book implies that gaseous pollution is not an issue unless ambient air is polluted. No discussion is made of internally generated gaseous pollution. In its discussion of pollution, the book also fails to point out that "safe" pollution levels for humans as set by OSHA and EPA may exceed safe levels for libraries by a factor of 100. The book suggests no specific gaseous criteria for libraries.

Water spray and activated carbon are the only gaseous pollution control methods discussed. The problems with charcoal are not brought out, and it does not discuss potassium permanganate, the most popular alternative. The discussion also does not clarify the distinction between particulate and gaseous filtration, a common confusion. Later in the book, only water spray control is suggested as feasible for gaseous control, ignoring the earlier-mentioned charcoal.

Some of the editing is dated. Asbestos has not been used since the late 1970s, due to its proven health hazards. Not only does this book address the issues of planning an expansion of a building without discussing situations where asbestos has been used, but it actually describes asbestos products as possible construction materials.

The discussion of lighting is generally quite good, but the discussion of shelf lighting misses the critical issue of vertical versus horizontal illumination. "Lam" lighting, as used in the book, is not a generally accepted term, has brand-name connotations, and is not as descriptive and unambiguous as the more generic term of "high-intensity discharge (HID) indirect" lighting.

The problem with these and other technical issues is that, although the book discusses them in some detail, it misses some critical points, giving a false sense of technical thoroughness.

This book is a good resource if you know what parts are weak, if you have the time to seek out all the various sections relating to a topic, and if supplemental information is used to fill in some gaps. It gives a good overview of the planning and design process, and has some unique information about library interior design.

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