Experiencing the Experience Library

The moment I walked into the Cerritos Library in southern California, my mouth dropped open and didn’t close for another hour. I had come to see what the literature about innovative libraries described as “the experience library,” and I was curious to know what the writers meant by “experience.” I didn’t have to wonder for long.

Encouraging imagination

From the lobby, I walked into the Children’s Department through an entrance of enormous classic books and stepped into a large, dimly lit room dotted with constellations around an inverted dome of sky. That’s where my jaw dropped. This was not your usual library children’s area.

Fitted in among the bookshelves were re-creations of rainforest trees (with twittering birds), a space shuttle and a lighthouse; along one wall was a 15,000 gallon saltwater aquarium (used to teach lessons about sea life); and looming above it all was Stan, an enormous dinosaur skeleton replica.

Standing in awe

As I stood there, taking it all in, a librarian asked, “Is this your first time at the library?” As I nodded, she said she could always tell because of the dazed look on people’s faces. It turned out the librarian was Padmini Prabhakar, Programming Services Director at the Cerritos Library, and she took me and my husband, Gregory, on a tour of the library.

Themed areas

What first hit me was that there was so much to see. Each department had a different theme, stimulating the senses with a variety of colours, textures, and time periods.

The new books were in an area called the Old World Reading Room designed in the style of a private library; the magazine section featured Arts & Crafts style furnishings; the fiction section was Asian Art Deco; and non-fiction was styled in futuristic high tech with lots of steel and glass.

Tech on tap

When I asked Padmini what her idea of “an experience library” was, she said, “It’s more than books.” Although books are still a big part of the library (“because everything is not on the Internet,” Padmini said), technology plays a large role.

Computers are in each department (the large computer workstations area on the second floor looks like a NASA command station); access ports for wireless access are conveniently located near most tables and chairs; RFID chips are used to make circulation of materials much easier; and the Teen Studio has a horizontal Microsoft Surface interactive tablet the size of a small table.

It’s more than books…or technology

But the experience of this library is more than its cool technology. City Librarian Don Buckley spoke with us for a few minutes, and he said that making the library bookless was one idea bandied about when the new library was being discussed in the late 1990s, but it was rejected as too limiting. “We didn’t want just a hall with computers,” he said, “but something that would have staying power for the future.”

In conceiving the library, designers took their inspiration from Disney and Hollywood, as well as The Experience Economy (1999) by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, incorporating user interaction and stimulus to inspire learning, creativity and the imagination, along with technology and books.

Details that delight

I could tell that a lot of thought had gone into the creation of every aspect of this library – not just in the big things, but in the details as well.

A light fixture above the non-fiction reference desk was designed so each bulb illuminated individual letters of the Reference sign.

What on first glance looked like a series of horizontal strips on a wall, was actually a quote, which appeared when a revolving light hit the lines a certain way, creating shadows which formed the letters.

And even the roof of a lower level was tiled in colourful asphalt so that when you looked down from the third floor terrace you had something nice to look at.

Inspiration for libraries

It’s been 12 years since the library opened in 2002, and it’s not so much the library of the future anymore as it is what a library should be today. So many libraries are fighting the perception of being irrelevant in today’s connected world, but the Cerritos Library has a lot to teach them about turning that viewpoint around with interesting things to see and do and, yes, experience. “It’s not about being transactional anymore,” Don said, “but being transformational.”

Its success is easily seen in how well the library is used. Padmini said it is always busy, teens flock here in droves, and people often tell her they would love to live there because it is so nice.

How cool is that?

Before we left, Padmini showed us one last thing – a very popular area in one end of the book entrance to the Children’s Department.

We sat down in front of a green screen (just like they use in the movies) and in a monitor in front us watched ourselves projected into different backdrops. Wow! What a fitting ending to an incredible library “experience.”

For more information, visit the Cerritos Library website!

1 comment for “Experiencing the Experience Library

  1. Shannon
    January 23, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    After visiting with you yesterday in Idyllwild, I’m anxious to see this library. I should be doing some local traveling next month and it is on my list of things to see. Thank you for the heads up on this beautiful library.

Comments are closed.