Renovating an Historic Library

The St. Louis Central Library was renovated to honor the past while also incorporating essential modern amenities like computer labs, teen spaces and collaboration rooms.

Making Space for Modern Amenities

Amenities that are essential to a library’s success — like computer labs, teen spaces and collaboration areas — were missing from St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library. In order to better serve the surrounding community, the library’s leadership initiated an extensive design project to compactly store books and other printed materials and to create space for modern needs.

Watch this video from STL-HOU about the renovation.

A Community Library

The St. Louis Public Library system began in 1865 and was open to paying members. It initially housed a collection of only 1500 books, but by 1893 the collection had grown to 90,000 volumes and was open to the public at no cost. Today the St. Louis Public Library system is made up of 15 branches, including the St. Louis Central Library, and it houses a total of 4.6 million volumes.

history library old entrance



history library gains more space


history library bookstacks before


The iconic building 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, thanks largely to a donation by Andrew Carnegie.

st louis library book stacks


Space & 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.

Not only did the library need to find space for modern ammenadies. The library also needed to address safety hazards caused by the outdated central stack area, which was constructed from a steel-framed, self-supporting structure.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. A clear fire hazard vialation.

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.

Compact shelving freed up space for classrooms and other collaborative workspaces

The building has been visited by millions of people from all over the world, but the library needed modern amenities to thrive in the 21st century.

Smart Shelving Solutions

With so many challenges to overcome, the design team integrated many different shelving solutions into the historic library renovation project. These solutions opened up space for repurposing and created a sleek, modern appearance that integrated with antique wood and other classic features.

LED light library shelving

Custom glass end panels and LED lighting integrated into the shelving makes the stacks look almost like works of art. They create a design feature unique to this historic urban library.

cantilever library display shelving

Red acrylic end panels were used on the cantilever shelving units in the showcase space on the library’s main level. These panels were custom ordered and mounted to the shelving during installation.

clear en panels for library shelving

Glass end panels were also installed on the cantilever shelving used in the media room. These cantilever shelves were designed with hinged periodical display shelves.

cantilever shelving in wooden book cases

In the reading rooms, the original bookcases lining the walls were restored and put to use, but in some cases the wooden shelves were cracked, damaged, or difficult to reconfigure. Spacesaver provided steel cantilever shelving for these areas.

library movable book shelving charts

In the children’s area, cantilever shelving was placed on heavy-duty casters to create movable library shelving. Now staff can easily reconfigure the room on the fly.

custom library shelving retractable shelves

Cantilever shelves feature pullout drawers to store DVDs and other media. This saves space while also encouraging patrons to browse.

Saving Space in the Stacks

Books and other printed materials were consolidated in Spacesaver high-density mobile shelving to free up space for modern uses. 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.

This century-old 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.

Compact shelving in library teen space and childrens reading area

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.