Exterior of a library surrounded by trees
Ledding Library in Milwaukie, Oregon. Courtesy Jeremy Bittermann

Hacker Architects Is Rethinking How Libraries Serve People

In a suburb of Portland, Oregon, the Ledding Library not only allows people to borrow books but check out objects from weed-whackers to air fryers.

When Milwaukie, Oregon’s Ledding Library opened its new building in January 2020 only to close it in March due to the pandemic lockdown, the interruption gave staff a chance to adjust their use of the space and make the most of Hacker Architects‘ design. The traffic had been “just overwhelming,” recalls Katie Newell, the library’s director, explaining how observations in those first open days raised their appreciation for the building’s overall design.

Ledding Library takes advantage of its natural setting, beside a small park along the banks of Scott Creek, with the building situated under a grove of mature oaks. The old library’s parking lot used to border this natural setting, but when the city of Milwaukie decided to tear down its mishmash of seismically-unstable structures (centered around the 1915 Florence Ledding House, which was expanded numerous times), one of the first big decisions was to place the new library along the water, and banish parking to the other side of the site. The new glass-walled structure acts like one big window overlooking the park.

Architecturally, libraries were these temples—there to impress you with the significance of history and knowledge.

David Keltner
Interior of a library with large windows looking out to the forest
Ledding Library in Milwaukie, Oregon. Courtesy Jeremy Bittermann

The Portland-based architects conceived the single-story building laid out like a boomerang, with its entrance in the middle, primary book stacks to the right, and a glassed-in children’s wing to the left. During the museum’s 12-month closure, staff rearranged many aspects of the interior, taking advantage of an open, column-free main space that makes it easy to move bookshelves and furniture to better accommodate circulation, maintain social distance, and operate efficiently. “It’s been so much better this second time around,” Newell says.

Flexibility was a key driver in the design from the beginning. “You need wide-open spaces like this,” explains Hacker Architects partner David Keltner, “because you need to be able to adjust and put stuff anywhere you want. In older libraries the form of the building dictates how you have to use it.”

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Interior of a library showing exposed timber framing
Ledding Library in Milwaukie, Oregon. Courtesy Jeremy Bittermann

The building’s open atmosphere is achieved with exposed timber framing. The Ledding’s tight thermal envelope also makes it 2030 Challenge-compliant. Yet while Hacker has designed many award-winning local libraries with ornate wood-festooned interiors (such as the Beaverton, Hillsdale and Woodstock branches), Ledding is actually built more like a warehouse (albeit a green one), and pairs wood glulam beams with simple steel bar joists. “It’s the most affordable structural system you can get, but doing a few things to protect its integrity so it doesn’t get all mucked up,” Keltner says, referring to moves like floor-based radiant heating, which eliminate the need for ceiling ducts.

The library’s instant popularity came in part because the building is not only a place for books, but also a community center, with dedicated meeting and hang-out spaces for visitors of all ages. (A teen room features a mural of superheroes, courtesy of neighbor Dark Horse Comics.) There are also not just books to borrow but a “library of things,” ranging from weed-whackers to a laminator and an air fryer.

Interior of a library showing a large superhero mural by Dark Horse comics
Ledding Library in Milwaukie, Oregon featuring a superhero mural by Dark Horse Comics. Courtesy Jeremy Bittermann

“Libraries have completely changed,” Keltner says. “Back in the day, you’d go there, you get the book, and leave. And architecturally, libraries were these temples—there to impress you with the significance of history and knowledge. They were also exclusive. Today, it’s not a place not to go get things but a place to go and do things. The materials have become more humble, but the architecture says to them, ‘We’re here to serve you.’”

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