Seattle's toast to the book

A library becomes this city's new focal point, celebrated by the region's romantics as well as its cosmopolitans.

With the rise of "tablet" computers that can practically put the Library of Congress in the palm of your hand, some envision a world without books. People can save trees while downloading everything from The New Yorker to Margaret Atwood's latest to a faux-paper display.

If any people in America should be smitten by this concept they would be here in the land of Microsoft.

How ironic, then, that Seattle this week opened a new library that enshrines and celebrates the glorious future of the ordinary book. Overseen by the architect Rem Koolhaas of Rotterdam, the new Central Library is drawing raves not just from critics but also from the legions of literate citizens here.

"The thing that excites me is that the building getting all these raves is a library. It's not a museum, not a ballpark, not an opera house," says Deborah Jacobs, city librarian since 1997. "The statement this place makes is: Libraries and books are alive and thriving."

For people who grew up here, it may take a decade or so to believe that what some locals see as a stodgy hamlet could overcome its utilitarian Protestant aesthetic. The function-over-form ethos is perhaps an apt fit with rainy gray days, but it has left Seattle with few landmarks, the soaring Space Needle notwithstanding.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the new Central Library is that everyone seems to love it, which, for Seattle, is unheard of. Since the early 1900s, the city has struggled with dual personalities that loathe each other's wants.

The romantics seem happy being a big town that would shun globalization and cling to aesthetics of community and the environment. Opposing them, cosmopolitan wanna-bes are embarrassed with backwater mind-sets and desperately want the rest of the planet to recognize their city as a world-class metropolis.

Like nothing else ever before here, the library's modern populist magic has inspired both elements. This place is nothing if not cutting edge. Yet its design - as well as Jacobs public statements - emphasize the power of knowledge in common and invite new possibilities for community.

Crowded with hundreds of citizens, it feels like a major airport, yet in numerous nooks and carrels, individuals are thumbing through pages and, Jacobs says, are using the joy and power of a public library "to hang onto the best of the past as we reach for the future."

In Jacobs's words, "We are everything hyperbolic: We are the people's university. We are the cornerstone of democracy. We are the community commons. What libraries do is they allow for individual enrichment yet in the presence of others."

Her proud words echo a trend that goes beyond this city. According to a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the number of library visits nationwide doubled from 1990 to 2001, and costly new libraries have been built in places such as Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and San Francisco.

Seattle's original library, a copycat Beaux-Arts effort of 1906, gave way in 1960 to a bigger library that critics sent to the ash heap of false futurism.

To its fans, the new library is everything Seattle has never been. It is bold instead of trite, unabashedly modern instead of apologetically primitive. It marries outlandish form with visionary function. More important, it could become the public commons the city has always needed but had never found the moxie to create.

Mr. Koolhaas's creation, a shell of angled girder and glass, pushes every aesthetic envelope without offending. What makes it all work - why 500 people a day have been getting first-time library cards - is the raw power of so much function inside of the form.

The 11-story cathedral is 100,000 square feet larger than the old library. Because of this, the public has access to 75 percent of the library's collection, up from 33 percent before. The building is filled with Wi-Fi hot spots for people to connect their laptops to the Internet. Acoustic sound domes allow you to play music - yours or the library's - as loud as you like. Microchips embedded in each library item allow computers reading radio frequencies to sort and transport books, freeing the library staff to work with customers.

Jacobs praises some 100 library employees who staffed 37 committees that created Koolhaas's marching orders: "The staff laid out every foot of the 365,000 square feet in here," she explains. "The architect was given a thick book filled with his instructions" not of how the building should look, but of what it needed to do and be.

And this city appears to love the result.

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