Features

Books, books, books

"Books, books, books" Continued...

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

With about 1.1 million books and 400 computers speckled throughout 363,000 square feet of space, the building is an indefatigable Mecca for research and learning. But Jacobs admits, without apology, that many of the library's visitors have more interest in beams, floor plans, and structural designs than books. The building is a destination tourist attraction on par with Seattle's Space Needle and Pike Place Market.

"We are bringing money into the community, regularly," she says before turning to point through the library's southern wall of glass. "That building across the street was originally going to be offices, but when they saw the impact of this building, they turned it into condos." The marketing materials for those new high-rise residences promise a rarely highlighted feature in real estate-library views.

Cities nationwide have largely embraced a more modern image of libraries-technologically advanced, architecturally stylish, and self-consciously multicultural. But Seattle's house of books exceeds even its freshest rivals on all three counts, an achievement Brewster says underscores the city's values: "It's a very high book-readership community, one of the highest in the country. And Seattle has a populist heritage of providing good, free public services."

New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp called the library the most exciting new building he'd reviewed in his 30 years of writing on the subject. Most critics lavished the completed structure with similar superlatives, a stark departure from the local grumbling over initial exterior drawings from Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Jacobs took considerable heat initially for her bold and risky selection of Koolhaas to design the building. "A lot of people, when they saw the plans and saw it going up thought, 'Oh, just a typical boondoggle,'" Jacobs recalls. But when more than 25,000 people spilled through the doors on opening day, the complaining ceased.

Committed to furthering such wide-spread satisfaction with the library, Jacobs spurns job offers from other cities or organizations. Her professional devotion to this building represents a departure from a life of personal instability. Twice divorced, Jacobs lived with a lesbian partner in Corvallis, Ore., before coming to Seattle. Since her move north, she has marched alongside other area librarians in the city's gay pride parade, but is now romantically involved with a single father, a man she relates to, given her experience of raising a son alone.

Jacobs hitches another escalator ride to the 10th-floor reading room, the library's highest point of public access. Here, at the top of her world, personal shortcomings and difficulties give way to vocational triumphs: "I have a job that allows me to do two things: One is to make the world a better place, and the other is to restore faith in government."

She leans into a horizontal steel beam, peering out a sloped bank of windows at the busy street more than 150 feet below. "I love the library," Jacobs says. At $169 million, she'd better.

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