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America’s Most Beautiful Libraries

While avid readers appreciate the art form of the written word, the buildings that hold so many words – and the books that contain them – can be marvels in and of themselves. Here’s a look at some of the most architecturally astonishing libraries around the country.

Phoenix – The Arabian Library in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, won the 2009 AIA/ALA Library Building Award for its soft, sloping lines and beautiful wood construction. According to the architect, the building is a remembrance of the desert slot canyons of northern Arizona and monument valley, capturing the powerful and unique experience between the compressive stone walls and the ultimate release to the sky above. Ever-patient threads of water, sculpting and polishing the massive walls, cut these natural sandstone canyons over millennia. Harder stone and slow water sharply defines vertical slivers while softer stone gives way to wider crevasse.

Madison – The Wisconsin Historical Society library (pictured above) features an enormous reading room with cross-hatched glass ceilings. Thanks to architectural detective work, the room was restored to its original glory; a $2.9 million renovation led to a room demure in tone, and expansive in tone. The new ceiling, with ornate plaster rosettes, gold leaf accents and a blushing ochre contrast color, is gasp-inducing. Other touches include The comfy brown leather reading chairs, the special soothing color tones, the lovingly restored column plaster curleys and cues and dangly bell flowers, the mahogany tables, the handy outlets for laptop computers and the inviting green-shaded lamps.

New Orleans – The Rosa Keller Library was named one of the best new pieces of architecture in 2012 by New Orleans Magazine. The use of natural sunlight is key within the library where access to books, social interaction and connectivity to the internet are all equally important. As much a social hub as it is an academic center, the library was rebuilt within the framework of a 21st-century model to allow technological access for community members that may not have it at home. At its center, the new building contains a small courtyard surrounded by glass walls that is visible from within the main library. The building’s largest and most expansive space holds the computer and reading tables, main desk and library office, which functions as an enclosed light in green glass, illuminating the space. The library serves as one of the only centers for community engagement in the neighborhood and hosts adult education classes, art workshops, after-school activities for children, and community events throughout the year.

Lake Tahoe – The Prim Library at Sierra Nevada College, in the town of Incline Village (on the shores of Lake Tahoe), delivers a rustic feel in the heart of the forest. Exposed heavy timber construction and layered natural wood interiors reflect the forested location of this liberal arts college. Inside the library, a large reading occupies the main level, with an ascending stair up to the floors of book stacks, mimicking the familiar act of climbing the slopes in this mountainous region. Reading alcoves and study lofts perched above the book stacks take advantage of the voluminous, light-filled reading room while providing views into the forest. The three floors and two mezzanines also contain classrooms, meeting rooms, offices, exhibit space, and a cafe. The architects worked with a sustainability consultant to incorporate a variety of green technologies, each designed to save energy and increase energy efficiency.

Portland – Beaverton City Library (pictured below), just west of downtown Portland, is a vaulted and rustic structure. The full-service central library features light-filled open spaces for reading and browsing, designed around a significant public room constructed of an “orchard” of graceful wooden columns arching upward into a wooden lattice of roof framing, which architecturally invokes the town’s nickname of the City of Trees. The building includes a 150-seat auditorium, public meeting rooms, a computer room, and a large children’s area.

Seattle – Renton Public Library, located 11 miles southeast of downtown Seattle, boasts and industrial and natural feel. When it opened in 1966, the library was an engineering feat. With pre-cast concrete and wood truss joists creating a stunning 80-foot central span across Washington State’s Cedar River and active salmon habitat. The floor plan celebrates the central span and highlights views of the river. The full height glazing and open floor plan connect the library to the river below and provides an airy atmosphere for the highly active programming elements, such as the collection stacks, children’s areas, reading rooms, and computer areas. Digital information was given a touch of industrial inspiration through power and data drops from the ceiling that combine aircraft cable and steel connections that visually anchor computer stations and study tables.

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