You are the owner of this article.
There's wireless, coffee and — oh yes, books — at the new Central Library

There's wireless, coffee and — oh yes, books — at the new Central Library


Welcome to a new library.

Not just a Downtown institution that’s been renovated, renewed and expanded to the tune of $30 million.

But a whole new concept in libraries.

After it opens to the public on Saturday, visitors to the new Central Library, located at 201 W. Mifflin St., will be able to borrow an iPad or sign up for a class in audio engineering. They can lounge with a coffee bought at the library’s cafe, or dine on food brought in from a Downtown restaurant. They can plug in practically anywhere.

They can — and will, it’s hoped — use the building for everything from study groups and business meetings to making video games, recording music, repairing bikes and doing performance art.

Yes, there will be books — e-books and print books. But the library will also serve as a place to create, said Nate Clark, who will coordinate the free workshops and drop-in sessions in the library’s professional-grade Digital Media Lab. He’s also a freelance game designer with experience in animation and film.

“For me, as a non-librarian, coming from outside the system, it’s kind of twisting the perception of what the library is — taking it from being a place of 100 percent consumption where you come in, read a book, absorb knowledge and leave, to being a place of production, where you’re telling your own story, absorbing other people’s stories,” he said.


Built on the site of the former 1965 central branch, Madison’s new Downtown library was designed by architects Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis and Potter Lawson, Inc., of Madison. The remodeling and expansion came after the city examined and then scuttled a proposal for a $37 million, six-story library a few blocks away.

Expanded public space

Gone is the cramped and dismal interior of the library’s predecessor, replaced with a sense of spaciousness and natural light.

“Although we’ve only increased the building capacity by 25 percent, from approximately 95,000 to 120,000 square feet, we’ve increased the public access in the building from 40,000 to 80,000 square feet,” said library director Greg Mickells.

That includes a cheery new children’s section that, at around 10,000 square feet, “is about the size of one of our branch libraries,” he said.

Young readers can curl up with a book inside a child-sized wall cubby, sprawl on the bright linoleum floor warmed by radiant heat or take a turn at the iPad bar. A “comfort room” provides space to nurse or calm a child.

Much of the library has a “modern retail” feel (as it’s described on the library’s website), featuring café- and living room-style seating with a mid-century “Mad Men” flair.

Visible from the street, a $150,000 privately funded sculpture titled “Question Mark” will be illuminated at night, a time when the library hopes to host more private events — including wedding receptions — to boost its bottom line.

“We think the library will have a tremendous positive impact on Downtown and this part of the Square,” said Mary Carbine, director of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District.

“They’re estimating a million visitors annually, and really expanded programming and types of visitors,” she said. “It’s going to be a real destination.”

Using recycled materials

The building itself has a layered energy, with the most interactive areas — Youth Services, the Digital Media Lab and the urban-hip teen area, for example — on the lower level and first floor.

The “shushed” areas for quiet reading are on the second and third.

A green roof planted in sedum can be seen from both administrative offices and a small outdoor plaza on the building’s new third floor.

Flooring made from recycled tires, with a forgiving texture designed to give librarians’ feet a break, rolls out through much of the building, as does a sense of artistic creativity: Found materials turned into art, touch screens with video art, even an exposed “waffle ceiling” lit by looping fluorescent tubes that radiate a certain urban chic.

“We opened that up (by removing a dropped ceiling) and added some interesting lighting fixtures. It’s a nice architectural element,” Mickells said.

The mural in the library’s former children’s department painted by UW-Madison artist-in-residence Aaron Bohrod in 1965 has been painstakingly restored in place, lit and now has much greater visual impact.

Key to the facility — and the library’s direction — is the Bubbler program, a series of workshops about making and doing. This summer the Bubbler visited branch libraries and community centers with its popular “Animation Creation Station” workshops.

Now, the Bubbler will have its own dedicated space inside the Central Library’s family-friendly entrance on Mifflin Street.

At a weekly Saturday event known as “Meet Your Makers,” visitors can drop by to witness a 3D printer or watch how cheese is made. Other Bubbler programs could include a writer’s workshop or a papermaking class.

“One of the things we want people to gain when they come to the library is an experience,” Mickells said. “We want the experience in the library to be interactive, so we’re trying to bring in as many experts and creators as we can to enhance that experience.”

That “maker” message reflects a national trend, said Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association.

“Libraries are really becoming collaborative spaces of sharing,” she said. “It’s happening all over the country, in every type of library.”

“Printed books are not going to go away,” Stripling said. “But if libraries have any money at all for redoing the library space, they are pushing the bookshelves to the outside and providing those flexible, creative spaces in the middle.”

Madison’s Bubbler program — fueled by a $25,000 “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a matching pledge from the Madison Library Foundation — has its own website at

“If you look at what’s going on in culture in general — today with the Internet and social media it seems like everyone is a maker of some sort,” said Bubbler coordinator Trent Miller, who is also director of the library’s new third-floor art gallery.

“Since that has shifted in the culture, we want to reflect that in what is going on at the library — not only to create content, but to put it out there in the public, to sort of help them navigate that.”

New events, new energy

Miller, also a painter, was the driving force behind the January 2012 event “Bookless,” when local artists took over the vacated old library and turned it into a one-night, living art space.

Participants still rave about the energy created at that event.

An encore to “Bookless” will be “Stacked,” another fundraiser for adults on Sept. 19.

That night, the building will be filled with bands, performance art, installations and video projects, plus a salon-style show with works by about 50 local artists.

With a vibe similar to Bookless, “you can still expect rock bands, DJs, art and drinks throughout the building,” Miller said, “but obviously there will be no painting on walls and cutting into ceiling tiles.”

Late-night performance events will continue at the library the first Friday of every month. Called “Night Light,” “The idea is to continue this kind of energy from Stacked and Bookless, draw that kind of crowd,” Miller said.

Designs for the library were already complete when Mickells, who studied art in college, became director.

His role, he said, has been to see the project through and to envision creative ways to use the new space — recording bands, hosting meetings, welcoming social service agencies in to meet with clients.

“Making it as available to the community as possible,” Mickells said.

“I really operate from the principle that this is their building. That’s who invested in this, and we really want to give the public a great return on their investment. So we’re going to try to make it available in as many ways to as many people as possible.”

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Badger Sports

Breaking News