Modernizing a historic library

Spacesaver’s storage solutions free up space for new uses in the St. Louis Central Library.

Historic Library Renovation

The iconic, Italian-Renaissance inspired St. Louis Central Library was designed by one of the most famous architects of the early 20th century, Cass Gilbert, who later went on to design the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. The Library was constructed in 1912 using funds from donation given by Andrew Carnegie in 1901.

The building has been visited by millions of people from all over the world– but after a century of use, the historic majesty of the structure could not make up for the lack of modern amenities necessary for a library to thrive in the 21st century.


Space and safety concerns in a historic public library

When a library as famous and well visited as the St. Louis Central Library undergoes a massive renovation, great care and consideration must go into the planning process.

Areas that have become essential to a library’s success as a community resource, like computer labs, teen spaces and meeting rooms, were missing from St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library. In order to make room for these types of spaces, books needed to be moved, but there was nowhere to move them because the stacks were at capacity.

The library also needed to address safety hazards caused by the outdated central stack area, which was constructed from a steel-framed, self-supporting structure. This structure was made up of metal shelving uprights bolted together one on top of the other, into multiple tiers (floors) separated only by opaque glass tile floors that were suspended from the steel shelving posts.

“Together, architects and librarians had almost doubled the square footage open to the public without expanding the original walls an inch.”

~ Marta Murvosh, Library by Design Magazine

Compact shelving freed up space for classrooms and other collaborative workspaces.

Picture a house of playing cards, where the “floors” are built off the “walls” made of cards. Due to the nature of the self-supporting structure’s construction, there was a small gap between the base of the metal shelf and the start of the glass floor. A person could stand on the seventh floor of the stack area and look all the way down through the gap to see the ground level. Because there was no separation between tiers, other than glass, this was a major fire hazard. If there were a fire, it would spread quickly and with no resistance all the way up from the lowest tier to the highest.

The second issue with this particular stack system was seismic. In St. Louis, the closer the building sits in relationship to the river, the greater reinforcement is needed to prevent any damage from seismic activity. This system, not unlike the proverbial house of cards mentioned earlier, would be unstable in the event of an earthquake.

Creative storage solutions helped the library consolidate its stacks, integrate technology into public areas, and create collaborative workspaces — without expanding the building’s original footprint or significantly altering its historic structure.

Compact shelving in library teen space and childrens reading area

Custom features and detailed planning

With so many challenges to overcome, the St. Louis Public Library integrated many different shelving solutions into their renovation project in order to open up space for repurposing, and to create a sleek, modern appearance in the historic building.

Library staff knew the local Spacesaver representative, and Spacesaver, from previous projects that had been completed for their public library system over the last 35 years. In fact, the Central Library project was preceded by a substantial high-density mobile storage project completed for the library’s off-site facility that was located just three blocks away. This mobile system is made up of cantilever shelving and half-height laminate end panels. As a closed access building, the units could be functional rather than aesthetic, which helped reduce costs while still maximizing the available space.

During the two-and-a-half year construction project, the library’s 4 million volumes were moved into both a temporary off-site warehouse, purely used for storage during the renovation, and into the off-site facility.

During this time, the self-supporting stack structure was completely removed from the building and new floors were constructed and outfitted with Spacesaver mechanical assist high-density mobile shelving. The library repurposed some of the original glass floor tiles and used them as a wall near the front desk on the ground level.

Static Spacesaver cantilever shelving was used throughout the public access areas of the library for easy browsing by patrons. Cantilever shelving is the most common system used in libraries, due to the on-site reconfigurability. Several custom features were integrated into the final design of the various shelving units throughout Central Library.

Custom endpanels on library shelving

Library staff integrated different shelving solutions into the renovation project in order to open up space for repurposing and to create a sleek, modern appearance in the historic building.

LED lighting for library shelving

 LED lighting was installed onto the Spacesaver cantilever shelving units throughout many areas of the library, including the Fine Arts, Science and Technology and Rare Books rooms. This required a special base for the cantilever units onto which the vertical lighting fixtures could be affixed. These fixtures not only look like a part of the shelving (painted in the same finish) but are also used to light the aisles, in lieu of adding any additional room lighting that might detract from the historic chandeliers and ornate ceilings. The LED lighting is also energy efficient and less expensive to operate than traditional florescent bulbs.

Custom glass end panels were used in the areas with LED lighting integrated into the shelving. The glass panels are subsequently illuminated, making the stacks look almost like works of art and creating a design feature unique to the St. Louis Central Library. Glass end panels were also installed on the cantilever shelving used in the media room. Because these cantilever shelves were designed with pullout drawers to store disks and other media like DVDs, no lighting was integrated.

Red acrylic end panels were used on the cantilever shelving units in the showcase space on the main level of the library called The Center for the Reader. These pieces were custom ordered and then mounted to the Spacesaver shelving during installation.

In the children’s area, cantilever shelving was outfitted with a custom base, wrapped in solid surface and then placed on heavy-duty casters so that the area is completely reconfigurable on the fly by the library staff.

Another stunning addition to the library was a full size auditorium for concerts and live theater. This space is located on the basement level, and through some ingenuity, replaced the original coal bin room.

Compact shelving consolidated the collection from a seven-tiered system onto just three floors, plus the basement. The new stack space meets fire and seismic codes, and it’s brighter and easier to navigate.

A renewed cultural center

The Central Library re-opened during the St. Louis Public Library’s centennial year of service. The library is now a blend of old and new, where ornate wooden ceilings and dramatic chandeliers meet high-tech computer labs, sleek glass walls and exposed concrete floors.

The use of high-density mobile shelving enabled the library to consolidate the collection from their seven-tiered central system onto just three interior mezzanine-like floors, plus the basement level of the library. Not only does the new stack space meet fire and seismic codes, it is brighter and easier to navigate and truly maximizes the interior floor space.

The high-density mobile storage used throughout the library also helped open up existing spaces for new functions. There is now a teen room, which incorporates study areas, lounge seating, and even a small theater-like TV viewing area. The library also added a café, a book club meeting room, and a studio for movie, music and video game access.

Each new space and custom shelving solution has helped renew the library as a cultural center for the city of St. Louis.

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