Dayton, Ohio, isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a progressive U.S. city with Danish-inspired civic planning. Yet this post-industrial Midwestern city of 140,000 — the seat of a county that voted definitively for President Trump in the 2016 election — defies expectations. It has a diverse population, farm-to-table bistros, a bike-share program, electrified public transit, an independent theater community, and forward-thinking architecture, design, and cultural institutions.
But the most progressive thing about Dayton — the thing that puts its coastal, blue-state brethren to shame — is its public library system, one of the most dynamic in the country.
In an era of widespread internet access, cheap digital books and federal disinvestment, cities across America are attempting to reinvent their aging library systems. Dayton is at the forefront of this movement. The Dayton Metro Library is leading the city’s cultural transformation, putting $1 million dollars into local art, and using the largest bond issue in state history to radically change the form and function of its library spaces. It is customizing branches for the specific communities they serve, implementing new architecture that can adapt to future technologies, and designing programming that integrates the library into the daily routines of city life.
In short, the city is reshaping the place of the public library in society, making an important “third place” where citizens go when not at work or at home. While libraries across the country risk going the way of the card catalogue, Dayton’s is becoming a place for everything from family reunions to wedding receptions; theater to video production; virtual reality to cooking; and of course, reading, writing, and research.
A child warms up in the Story Corner in the Main Downtown branch.
Dayton’s reimagined library system got off to an inauspicious start. After years of meticulous study, discussion, and analysis, library officials were finally ready to unveil plans for a revamped system in September 2008. Weeks later, the global economy collapsed, and by November the plan had been shelved.
For a number of years prior, the library had suffered from a lack of state funding, says Tim Kambitsch, executive director of Dayton Metro Library. Facilities were deteriorating. “When we decided to go for a bond issue in 2007, we had a strategic plan we’d developed that said what we wanted to improve, [and] we had a broad scope of things we wanted to achieve.” None of their facilities, he says, did what they wanted.
Despite the 2008 crash and lack of funding, Kambitsch says Ohio’s overall attitude towards libraries defies economic and nationwide trends. “I think one of the special characteristics in Ohio is we’ve had strong public libraries. There is a strong degree of support for libraries. It’s amazing to see that amount of support.” In 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, the library asked Dayton voters for an increase in their levy, and an incredible 73 percent of them responded by approving the request.
In 2011, at a board member’s encouragement, the 2008 plans were dusted off, and officials refreshed the data and restarted public meetings and polling to learn what each community’s aspirations were for their library branches. “We found an incredible amount of support for us to do what we had aspired to do for our community,” says Kambitsch.
The county treasurer at the time encouraged the library to “go for the whole enchilada,” says Kambitsch, and embrace an expansive vision that would be paid for with a bond issue, requiring voter approval. “One of the things that became obvious to us was the fact that we were making this big ask, that people recognized this was going to be something special,” says Kambitsch. “At the same time, it engaged the conversation … of what the contribution to the community could be. It built a greater aspiration from the community — what did they want?” Even with the big ask — $187 million and the largest bond issue in state history — Kambitsch says the plan still enjoyed overwhelming support.
The bond issue passed in 2012, and shortly thereafter an anonymous donor bequeathed one million dollars to the library, which officials decided to spend on art for the new branches the bond issue would pay for.
The communities moved forward, collaborating as a part of a holistic process that enabled them to be a part of the planning before any architectural blueprints were drawn up. Architects and library administrators listened to residents at heavily attended forums to learn what was special about each community and what their priorities were for the library branches serving them.
The music studio in the Northwest branch is the direct result of such listening. The community was proud of being the center of the genesis of funk music — Troutman Studios were located just a few blocks away, and the Ohio Players practiced in a garage nearby — and they wanted to celebrate that history, says Kambitsch. “So we created a recording studio in that branch. That was a direct reflection of what the neighbors told us was important to them in that neighborhood.”
To create such individualized branches, the Dayton Metro Library turned to Group 4, a San Francisco-based architecture firm that specializes in library design. Over the course of the renovations, four other local architecture firms joined in collaboration on various branches.
David Schnee, a principal at Group 4, says they modeled concepts for the Dayton Metro Library system on Dokk1, a Danish library that calls itself a “citizens’ house” and functions as a “center for knowledge and culture.” DOKK1 includes a playground, a café, a “creative room” for young children, the city archives, a nursing room (though nursing is permitted throughout the facility), a game room for board games, citizen support services, and media in multiple languages — in addition to library standbys like a quarter of a million books.
Dayton’s system is now “one of the first American interpretations of the concept of having the library be an active community center,” says Schnee. From the beginning, he says they wanted to be sure their plans were “reflecting and celebrating the communities and values in which the libraries are located.” There were “some common aspects in branding,” but the “opportunity to have it fit and tailor to location, demographics, needs, and values” was a huge part of the process. That process enables the library to be firmly anchored in the fabric of community life while still moving decidedly into the future.
Branches offer meeting rooms as well as collaborative spaces with tables, TVs and white boards — some areas look more like a co-working space than a traditional public library. There is a laptop vending area where you can check out a laptop and take it to a cushy chair or sofa next to a gas fireplace or picture window to work. Audio and video equipment can be accessed at every branch, and some branches have editing suites and green screen rooms. Two libraries have complete recording studios — all in line with the idea that libraries are a place to create content, not just consume it. Each space inspires dignity, and library officials work hard to keep the libraries clean and welcoming.
“We didn’t want to build our buildings so tight we wouldn’t be able to [reconfigure] them.”
Recognizing that the libraries needed to be modern not only now, but in the future, the architects included “opportunity spaces” at each branch — spaces that can be easily modified to accommodate evolving needs. Inspired by DOKK1, Schnee describes opportunity spaces as “flexible galleries and lab spaces used for prototyping/testing new library services, hosting service partners, and a wide range of other activities.”
Schnee says the spaces can be used as nonprofit incubators, or for unique events or installations. (They’re set up to handle everything from cooking courses to solar vehicle conversions to virtual reality.) They give the library the flexibility to grow into new technology as it develops and the library seeks to expand. “We wanted to future-proof [these libraries],” explains Kambitsch.
The Dayton Metro Library also explored what other libraries were doing, such as in Chattanooga, where the main library’s “4th Floor” hosts a “public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts,” where power tools, a 3D printer, laser cutter, screen printer, virtual reality and a sewing lab are all available to the public.
“We don’t know what the next big thing for libraries is,” says Jayne Klose, spokesperson for the Dayton Metro Library system and former campaign manager for the $187 million bond. “We didn’t want to build our buildings so tight we wouldn’t be able to [reconfigure] them.”
Throughout the spaces, from the ceilings to the walls — even looking through glass windows — is art, created by local artists and rooted in the uniqueness of each individual branch’s neighborhood. The permanent installations are testaments to the values each community holds dear, and further integrate the new library spaces into the communities they serve. When the Dayton Metro Library received that $1 million dollar anonymous donation, its officials decided that they wanted to spend the money on art, and also that they themselves were not art experts. After issuing a request for proposals, they decided to partner with the Dayton Art Institute (DAI).
The partnership resulted in a program, Reimagining Works, whereby local communities inform the DAI of their values via public forums. The DAI then selects work from its collection that reflects those values. The architects and library administrative staff attend these forums too, collecting information that will ultimately inform their library branch designs. The public votes on the DAI’s selections, and the “winning” pieces, along with the basic architectural plans for the library, are then presented to local artists as inspiration for their works. Those artists — all from Ohio, and all from within 250 miles of Dayton—submit their proposals to a board that includes members of the community, the library, and the DAI. These forums are ongoing, held regularly as renovations to the libraries continue through 2020. Each location will receive one to six pieces of art, with the amount of money spent on the art determined by that location’s square footage.
The entire project is a huge source of support for local artists, offering them an opportunity to have their work on permanent display in their own hometown. Commissions range from a couple thousand dollars to six figures for the main library’s signature piece, Fractal Rain, an installation suspended 60 feet in the air and comprised of 3,756 prisms and five miles of steel wire.
“It was incredibly forward-thinking for the library to invest its money in art,” says Susan Anable, the DAI’s project manager for Reimagining Works. “It’s great, because the community is involved often and from the beginning.”
At the Brookville branch, artist Suzanne Ley chats with Meredith Moss of the Dayton Daily News about her art piece on display at the library while a young local musician plays in the background.
Also included from the beginning is the art itself, which is integrated into the library spaces during the architectural process so it fits seamlessly with the building designs. The artists work with the builders to ensure that a fire alarm, for example, won’t be placed where their work will hang. “The way the library approached it, from an artist’s point of view, it was wonderful,” says James Michael Kahle, a glassblower who has contributed glass art to both the Brookville and New Lebanon branches. (Kahle’s pieces are designed to be touched and integrate with the environment and light, inside and out.) “When there was an issue, it was quickly resolved. That is really a big part of getting it done and getting it done well. Going to the architect and saying, ‘We don’t want sheet rock there, because a 300-pound piece of glass will go there.’” Kahle was also able to make sure the electricians installed the appropriate outdoor lights to light his work after dark.
“I remember when federal buildings needed 4 percent of their budget spent on art,” adds Kahle. “The idea of a public space to get to the artist at the beginning of the design phase allows you to do much more and have it ready when the building opens. You get so much more bang for your buck. You have to understand the parts before you put it in motion.”
The result allows the public to interact in new ways with their environment and each other: families can circulate directly from the library’s children’s section out into a park, a local theater company can use an opportunity space to build scenery pieces for their latest show, and The Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Center can create its first-ever installation — planting its roots in the very neighborhood where funk music was born.
The natural integration that occurs when worlds collide helps libraries as well as patrons. The community is interacting with the library in new ways, hosting everything from family reunions to grassroots organizing to chamber of commerce meetings at the library. Everyone in the community, from people with disabilities to funk music aficionados to recent immigrants and refugees can interact with fellow Dayton locals who they might not otherwise have met in an increasingly siloed society. This gives much needed exposure to, for example, new nonprofits, and cultivates a sense of place and camaraderie as members of a thriving, diverse Dayton community.
While Dayton sits on the forefront of bringing libraries not just into the present but into the future, the federal government seems committed to keeping them trapped in the dusty, distant past.
“Once again, this year the White House’s proposed federal budget includes cancelling funding for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), an organization vital to state-funded library projects, especially in rural America,” says Karl Johnson, marketing coordinator at Group 4.
The American Library Association has been sounding the alarm about the cuts, which could decimate library systems in communities across the country. “The administration’s FY2019 budget is out of touch with the real needs of Americans and the priorities of leaders in Congress who represent them,” wrote American Library Association president Jim Neal in a February 2018 statement. “The president miscalculates the value of more than 120,000 libraries across America.” Indeed, two-thirds of Americans say closing their local library would have a “major impact” on their communities as a whole.
(It’s important to note that, while sacrificing libraries to budget cuts may fit with the Trump administration’s ethos, the Obama administration also proposed cuts to the IMLS.)
Libraries, Neal writes, need that money to help their patrons with everything from job training in Arkansas to business development in North Carolina to GED preparation courses in Kansas — demonstrating that even while libraries might increasingly be seen as archaic, they are nevertheless in high demand, especially in the rural parts of the country. After all, 62 percent of public libraries report they are the only source of free internet in their communities.
Teens relax in the TEEN area on the second floor of the Main Downtown branch. Nearby their friends play online interactive games on a giant-screen HDTV.
According to a Pew report, Americans want and are expecting more from their public libraries — including programs that teach digital skills, such as how to use 3D printing technology — and want their libraries to offer “more comfortable places for reading and relaxing.” The same report also notes that in an era rife with fake news, the local library is becoming a go-to source for information the public can trust, and is a place the community can turn to in times of crisis, including natural disasters.
The fight for funding might, therefore, be a familiar one at the federal level, but in Ohio, nearly 90 percent of all bond issues for local libraries have passed since 2010, leading to the state spending over a quarter of a billion dollars upgrading its local library systems.
Nowhere does this impact seem as significant as in Dayton, where Reimagining Works and Dayton’s own neighborhoods serve as inspiration, and branches across the library system have become showcases for local art and community engagement.
The downtown Dayton community’s relationship with rain and flooding helped to inspire the main library’s signature piece, “Fractal Rain.” In Southeast Dayton, it was sycamore trees that provided the inspiration.
The community wanted to make sure that none of the trees would be removed for the new library, so Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Purple Leaves” was selected to inspire a work now being created by Kate Huser Santucci, a 46-year-old Dayton local. Santucci, who creates in mixed media using a beeswax and oil paint medium, has lived within walking distance of the Southeast branch for over 20 years. In addition to “Purple Leaves,” her work will also be a reimagining of “Ovala Marea” by Therman Statom, as well as the story of how her neighborhood has changed, with new residents from Rwanda, Burundi and Turkey, in addition to the community’s emphasis on communal garden spaces.
“Local nature,” says Klose, comes into each library and artistic project.
The new art can be literal or conceptual, says DAI’s Anable, but either way, the artist is required to explain the rationale behind the piece they intend to create. This explanation becomes an important piece of the selection criteria. “The merit is first,” says Anable, “but it’s also important the artist makes a connection to the museum’s collection. It’s a multi-layer process. It begins when the next branch is identified to be rebuilt or remodeled.”
Terry Welker, 62, the creator of “Fractal Rain,” has lived in Dayton since he was a teenager. His artistic specialty is large-scale mobiles. Of the thousands of prisms in “Fractal Rain,” which was inspired by Monet’s “Water Lilies” and a Chimú mummy mask from Peru, a sixth are hand-colored with the hues of Monet’s work. “If you look at the sculpture at certain times of the day, the colors reveal themselves,” says Welker. It took eight days and a 62-foot lift to install the piece. Photographs don’t do the work justice: It is a piece of art to experience in person — at the public library, for free.
The art creates cross-currents between the Dayton Art Institute and the Dayton Metro Library. Art Institute patrons go to the library to see the Institute’s work “reimagined,” and library users go to the DAI to see the original inspiration for each piece — exactly the kind of urban integration the new library system was designed to catalyze.
The partnership, says Anable, also reinforces the importance of public art and sends the message to local artists that their work is valuable. “To have it in a library, accessible to all at no charge, is great. It’s wonderful. I think it’s a great model for communities.”
And as a space to integrate those communities, the library strives to serve everyone, from immigrants in need of language or citizenship support to students doing in-depth research to the developmentally disabled.
The Montgomery County Board of Developmental Disabilities Services put on a multi-media, interactive exhibit that celebrated the lives and stories of their clients at the main branch. It showcased their clients’ work and the contributions they make to their communities. They displayed an audio/video presentation conducted by local NPR-affiliate WYSO called “Just Ask: Talking about Disability,” where their clients talked about issues that concerned them. The local transit authority, the RTA, came and shared information about their resources, and the library selected and displayed books about — and authored by — people with developmental disabilities. Some of the clients painted — one, who is unable to use her limbs, paints using headgear with a brush attached. A workstation was set up where patrons could try painting with the headgear themselves, creating a shared experience.
People with special needs and disabilities make art on the first floor space at the Main Downtown branch, which is specifically designed for art projects and presentation.
“The goal was to demonstrate how people with developmental disability contribute to the community with their talents,” says Janice Saddler Rice, director of communications at the Montgomery County Board of Developmental Disabilities Services. “The whole piece was about empowering people.”
The libraries, says Rice, provide “a space designed to be used to its fullest potential. Folks brought paints into the space, and they didn’t blink. They welcomed the idea that people with disabilities would be creating art in the space. And they set this space up so it would be simple to maintain.”
Schnee says the public library is really in the business of community. In Dayton, the new library designs serve as catalysts for the revitalization of the neighborhoods they’re located in. Kambitsch says that looking out his office window at the main library, there are 14 new condo buildings going up. Formerly abandoned buildings are being renovated or creatively re-used, and home values (and rents) are rising near the new libraries. “I know we add to the confidence that is happening, to give them initiative to move forward,” he says.
“The self-perception of the city,” he adds, is “to help the community be greater in its aspirations of what it wants. … We’re all a part of something special here.”
Valerie Vande Panne is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Politico, and The Boston Globe, among many other outlets. She is the former editor of Detroit’s alt-weekly, the Metro Times.
Since 1973, Andy Snow has been making photos and videos for clients such as GE, Midmark, and Time Warner. His assignments have been published in Fortune, The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal. Since appearing in the Communication Arts Photography Annual of 1991, his happiest recognition is being named in 2013 as one of 20 Best Photographers by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).