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Space Designed for Lifelong Learning: The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Joint-Use Library

Christina A. Peterson

Academic and public libraries were once believed to be discrete entities that had separate missions and served significantly different, although somewhat overlapping, user communities. Today, governing bodies of library systems are exploring how joint-use libraries can leverage shared and complementary values, clientele, and space to create synergistic places for lifelong learning and civic engagement. Benefits of these arrangements include efficiencies of scale in providing technology services, collections, staff expertise, and modern library space.

San José State University (SJSU) and the City of San José opened a newly built joint-use library in August 2003. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library is a merger of two library types: the San José Main Public Library (SJPL) and the SJSU Library. The new library is more than 475,000 square feet, with eight floors plus a mezzanine and lower level. Library Journal and the Thompson Gale Company honored King Library as the 2004 Library of the Year for both the physical building and the cooperative planning that have enabled it to offer innovative combined services to the university and the city (Berry 2004). Users include 30,000 students, faculty members, and staff from SJSU and 918,800 residents of San José. The collections comprise 1.3 million volumes. A sense of excitement and anticipation over how this unique project will work has been brewing since 1997 when a twinkle appeared in the eyes of the San José mayor, San José Public Library director, and SJSU president.1 They knew that several factors predicted success in this project, including

  • the shared central downtown location of both libraries
  • the need for increased services in a climate of decreasing financial support
  • enthusiastic and able institutional leaders
  • the ability to choose most advantageous arrangements for the purchase of furniture, fixtures, and equipment
  • an opportunity to offer new services, such as laptop connectivity, expanded teaching labs, extended hours, and group study rooms

One major planning issue was the degree to which services, collections, and operations would merge. Which aspects of the library should be joint-use, and which should be separate? The discussion was informed by the distinct operational style of each library and by how each customarily met both the unique and shared needs of its user community.

This essay examines sense of place in King Library and how it matches the concept of library space envisioned by those who planned the building. The questions to be explored include the following: What purposes do public and academic library spaces serve? What are the distinguishing characteristics of each, and how do they give users a sense of shared purpose and meaning? How do we merge public and academic users in one building and retain the best aspects of library space for each while creating new functional areas for joint use? What benefits do the formerly separate user communities gain from mingling in one grand space? During the six-year planning process, SJPL and SJSU articulated unique conceptual frameworks for space use on the basis of user-community needs. This essay draws on lessons learned during that process.

Martin Luther King Jr. Library as a Joint-Use Facility

King Library is a merger of two very traditional libraries, one academic and one public. It retains some time-honored features, such as central public service desks, segregated spaces for some age groups (children, teens), and open stacks of print materials. The new building is situated on one corner of the SJSU campus and has two entrances, one from the city and one from the university. As such, the library is a gateway from the city of San José into SJSU. It invites community users to explore not only the library itself but also the wider university, including events, courses, and degree programs. SJSU Library Dean Patricia Breivik states, “San José State University’s commitment to the community, and especially to new generations of students, is reflected in the beautiful, open, and spacious grand promenade connecting the two entrances. People entering from the city side can see the greenery of the campus at the far end of the building, and they walk out of the library onto the most beautiful part of the campus. It is SJSU saying, ‘Welcome!'”

An atrium extends eight stories above the grand promenade on the ground floor and floods the library with natural light. The promenade presents an attitude of salutation and activity, with a children’s room, a browsing collection for quick pickup of current materials, a café, an information desk, a circulation desk, and checkout stations. This is where users first encounter artwork from a collection designed by internationally recognized artist Mel Chin that is integrated into all floors of the building. These sculptural works include True and Through, a column extending throughout the library and clad in redwood veneer from a tree removed to accommodate the building’s footprint. Other sculptural works by Chin reflect San José and SJSU culture, as well as academic and public library concerns such as book burning and cultural memory.

Escalators from the ground level to the fourth floor provide access to merged and public library spaces, such as reference resources, adult services, the Teen Center, and current periodicals. These floors include places for information seeking, recreation, and information literacy. To enhance the aura of sociability and comfort, food and covered drinks are allowed on the first four floors. Most of the library’s public-access computer workstations are located on these floors. Group study rooms attract users who want to study, learn, and work collaboratively. Instructional labs provide formal information literacy sessions taught by librarians for groups of students and the public. None of these floors is designated as quiet; they constitute the active library space, encouraging interaction among user groups as well as between users and library staff.

SJSU and SJPL special-collections departments occupy one of the library’s main research spaces and are clustered on the fifth floor. Floors six through eight are organized around reading and books and house the SJSU Library circulating collection of 900,000 volumes, available in one place for the first time in more than 20 years. The Grand Reading Room on floor eight, designated a quiet area, is a destination for contemplative thought and study. It is outfitted with rich, modern furnishings and offers an unsurpassed view of the campus, San José, and the surrounding hills.

library info desk

An eight-story atrium provides abundant light and a sense of shared space in the King joint-use library. The information desk, a prominent feature of the the grand promenade, is viewed here from the third floor. [Photo by Christina Peterson]

Common Uses of Library Space that Create Sense of Place

Patrons use the library in ways that imbue the space with cultural meaning, shared purpose, and pragmatic functionality. Users take the library space created for them and use it to meet their own individual and collective needs, sometimes in unexpected ways. Planners of King Library identified five types of user activity for which space would need to be designed in the new library:

  1. information seeking
  2. recreation
  3. teaching and learning
  4. connection
  5. contemplation

Some library patrons make use of all five types of space; others use only one or two. The environmental and social needs of each activity demand the development of separate spaces with specific characteristics-for example, spaces for silence and spaces for reading aloud; spaces for computers and spaces for books; spaces for meeting and for collaboration. How does a large, joint-use library best serve the potentially conflicting needs of user communities? To address this question, it is useful to examine the comparative use of libraries by public and academic communities.

Information seeking is a common pursuit in both public and academic libraries and is a paramount function in King Library. Public library customers look for information important to their work and personal lives-for example, information on sources of small-business grants. Academic users do curricular-based research, such as searching for scholarly articles for coursework. Information seeking requires good print and electronic collections and excellent reference and technical services staffs. In King Library, the merged reference desk, where both academic and public librarians contribute reference help, facilitates information seeking. Here, patrons of all types seek a wide range of scholarly and practical information. Some patrons prefer to search without help; for them, electronic resources must be arranged for easy use and the print collection must be well cataloged, logically located, and open for browsing.

It is obvious that information seekers are finding and using materials in King Library. Circulation statistics show that patrons of the public library increased their use of the print and media collections by 38 percent during the first year of operation when compared with the previous year’s use in the former building. University users increased their borrowing more than 100 percent in the same time period. In addition, users are taking full advantage of collections throughout the library; during academic year 2003–2004, students checked out almost 300,000 items-typically current or popular fiction and nonfiction, language materials, and DVDs-from the public collections. Public patrons borrowed more than 222,000 items, including scholarly books, theses, and curriculum materials, from the academic stacks.

Recreation seekers, whether looking for entertainment material to take home or for the opportunity to participate in library activities (e.g., attending story time, using the Internet, and attending author lectures) represent both public and academic library customer groups. To meet their needs, the new library needed space for programming, workstations, and collections of appropriate materials. Some recreation customers are frequent “in-and-out” users; they appreciate the convenient free parking and hours that fit their work lives. For them, the Brandenburg Browsing Collection in the library lobby offers easy access to the newest movies, fiction, and nonfiction, all near the self-check terminals. For others who want to stay a while and chat with librarians about books, public librarians at the nonmerged adult services desk offer assistance. This area is in proximity to SJPL’s main collections of fiction and nonfiction. All adult users are welcome at this desk, including university students, who use the services and collections of adult services for both recreation and course work.

Teaching and learning spaces are at the heart of many academic libraries. Group study areas are collaborative environments that buzz with students working together; library classrooms afford a place for learning and experiential development of critical thinking; and public-service desks provide the opportunity for one-to-one teaching and learning. Public libraries share this commitment to teaching and learning by offering space for tutoring, literacy activities, training in Internet usage and resources, and homework help. King Library has four computer labs, where librarians offer information-competence education to students, the public, and colleagues.

Providing a neutral place where groups can connect is an important function of the public library, and one that benefits university students as well as members of the public at large. Civic programs, major displays, and public meetings provide forums for the open exchange of ideas students have read about or discussed in class. The library is a place where patrons meet in a highly accessible environment, where information and services are free of charge, and where all feel welcome.2 In King Library, immigrants congregate in the language collections, reading newspapers and magazines from their countries of birth, checking out entertainment videos in their native tongues, and meeting friends. College students who may have no other space on campus to call their own meet in group study rooms, at library tables, or in the Cultural Heritage Center-which houses the Africana, Asian American, and Chicano collections-to connect with other students for both academic and social pursuits. For these and other user groups, the library serves as a communal gathering space with cultural meaning.

Ah, contemplation, whose loss is a much-mourned feature of place in both public and academic libraries! Sallie Tisdale wrote eloquently in Harper’s Magazine about the loss of quiet in public libraries (and much the same may be said about a large part of academic library space): “This was a place set outside the ordinary day. Its silence-outrageous, magic, unlike any other sound in my life-was a counterpoint to the interior noise in my crowded mind” (Tisdale 1997). She speaks for many with fond memories of the library as sanctuary and monument to the intellectual life, with designated places to come into contact with the world’s knowledge and to absorb, integrate, and create it. This need for silent place is most at odds with other library uses and as such is most in need of protection. Fortunately, big-city public libraries and academic libraries still provide reading rooms and other spaces for reading, research, and study. The Grand Reading Room on King Library’s eighth floor is such a place.

What Do San José Users Value in Academic and Public Libraries?

Academic libraries provide learning spaces that range from the elegant to the downright dowdy, depending on many factors. Regardless of size and budget, academic libraries offer places for students to study and work together; to engage quietly with library materials in print, electronic, and other formats; and to interact with library professionals who offer assistance, teaching, and validation of the scholarly research process. SJSU students are frequently first-generation college enrollees and may have few other places to gather for such academic pursuits. What do SJSU students value? A benchmarking study conducted before the merger showed that SJSU students most highly value support for college coursework, support for research, and interaction with library staff for assistance and instruction (Childers 2002). Informal observations of group interaction showed that students also put great value on social environments that support collaborative learning. They seemed to share a sense of purpose enhanced by congregating in the library: to study, to learn, to do well in courses, and to graduate.

Public library customers also have collective purposes, but theirs are more diverse than those of university students. Users have in common the desire to obtain purposeful information or pursue useful activity. Children look for homework help, adolescents gather in the Teen Center, parents want picture and parenting books, seniors attend computer workshops, immigrants seek newspapers and other resources from the countries of their birth. The library is a cultural gathering place for groups that can be defined by ethnicity, age, interest, and more. What do SJPL customers value? A benchmarking study done before the merge indicated that meaning and value center around “recreation or hobby” and “general interest,” with checking out and returning material from neighborhood branches as important activities (Childers 2002). Because the language, media, and business reference areas were active, the observer for the study concluded that they were of high value and meaning. Quiet reading and group study spaces were also of worth to SJPL customers, as was help at service points such as the reference desk and adult-services desk (Childers 2002). At SJPL Main Library, the sense of meaning, value, and shared purpose was as diverse as are its user groups.

The most obvious differences between the former SJPL and SJSU Libraries were the wider age range of users at SJPL and consequent collections and services for children, young adults, and seniors, as well as the feeling of activity, motion, and interaction that pervaded all floors of SJPL but that was concentrated on only some floors of SJSU. These differences struck space planners as vital elements that had to be accommodated in the new King Library.

Creating an Environment for Lifelong Learning

The library’s mission to promote lifelong learning from youth to old age empowers citizens and students to achieve a better quality of life, find enjoyment, and bridge the digital divide. The California State University system, of which SJSU is a part, has long emphasized teaching as the primary function on its 23 campuses and has embraced information literacy as a vital student learning outcome. SJSU librarians and library staff share these academic values, which drive campus initiatives, goals, and assessment. In addition, SJPL has a commitment to literacy and learning, offering classes in computer literacy in four languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese), in genealogy research, and in Web page design and e-mail use. Accordingly, in King Library, learning spaces are emphasized and include four traditional information competence instructional labs as well as the service desks (for instance, reference, adult services, Teen Center, and Cultural Heritage Center). Integration of learning activities in spaces that house collections, workstations, and group assemblage is essential to the libraries’ shared mission. In King Library, teaching and learning come to life in collaborative spaces such as group project rooms and study areas; in patron consultations by appointment with academic and public librarians; and in special spaces such as the California Room and the Children’s Education Resource Center, where parents, teachers, and education students gather for dialogue, programs, and displays of curricular resources.

The library’s mandate to provide a learning environment to all users has led to the creation of a physical space that encourages both quiet reading and collaboration among all users. Students use the library as an education center from earliest childhood and throughout their lives, easing the transition to college. Adults find resources for assistance in job advancement and career change. Adults who are returning to school share the library-learning environment with their children and their parents. This blend of people and purpose creates a substantive milieu of intellectual cross-fertilization, service learning, and cultural enrichment. The availability of space for both individual and group work allows library users to acquire knowledge on their own or in new learning-community combinations. The goal of fostering information competency and lifelong, self-directed learning is enhanced by access to a comprehensive collection of combined city and university resources and by assistance from a staff of knowledgeable information professionals.

Promoting the Library as Civic Space

Nancy Kranich, a former president of the American Library Association, has written compellingly about the important role of the library as an information commons bolstering civic engagement (Kranich 2004). Public libraries have a history of actively developing community partnerships, educating immigrants for citizenship, and providing access to information, most recently, digital information. The purposeful use of public space by people from all walks of life and of all ages, as well as free connectivity with civic thought and action through programs and displays, promotes community identity for all library users. Several community groups with excellent volunteer opportunities for students-in particular, literacy groups-operate in King Library. Such community service reduces the fragmentation of local society and provides students with opportunities for commitment to San José service organizations and civic groups. Service learning is an important way in which the campus engages with the community.

Lessons from Year One

The first year of operation has shown that users like the library. Visits to King Library have increased by almost 70 percent compared with the number of visits to both libraries in the previous year. In addition, the planners, administrators, and staff have learned the following:

  • The regular mingling of all library users, from youngest to oldest, works when building design incorporates safe, enclosed spaces for children and teens and when policies require library staff to monitor usage in these spaces. This lesson was especially useful to academic library administrators and staff.
  • Users develop their own quiet study areas through a culture of silence, particularly in library space where the building is least noisy.
  • On the other hand, study groups spring up in unlikely places; they do not confine their activities to group study rooms.
  • Providing separate spaces for different levels of public-workstation capabilities gives students doing research for coursework their own area, away from the family who is sending e-mail messages or the teen who is playing games.
  • Students bring in their families, both children and parents, for the variety of library services.
  • A roving-security presence throughout the building and an adequate number of cameras are essential.
  • Policies and procedures should be planned in advance through staff discussion and consensus; they should be codified and easily accessible at point of need. This process uncovers and helps resolve different cultural values and helps ensure service uniformity throughout the building.
  • Signage, no matter how well done, is not always effective. People need attractive, accessible, well-staffed service points to help them move efficiently through a large building and find what they need.
  • Perhaps most important, while academic and public user communities do have distinct needs, many needs overlap in all realms: information seeking, contemplation, connection, recreation, and information literacy.

Some aspects of library services planned before the move and implemented during the first year had to be rethought because of lessons learned and the significant increase in gate count. “Quiet” floors (where users work and study with low-level, minimal conversation) were changed to “silent” floors (where conversation and cell phone use are prohibited), and vice versa, in accordance with user patterns developed during the year. The automated booking system for most public-access computers (not used previously at SJSU) seemed to present a barrier at first, but academic staff and students eventually came to understand the advantages of ensuring a workstation at a specific time. Group study rooms, originally designated to be available on a “first come, first served” basis, are being added to the booking system so users can reserve them. These floor designations and reservation systems have proved to be an easy way to assign priority to certain space uses, such as collaborative learning in group study rooms, information seeking at public terminals, and contemplation on silent floors. The increase in library use, while a clear measure of success, led to unanticipated costs for utilities, security, and janitorial services and supplies.


In the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, two separate libraries have combined their strengths-staff, collections, technological expertise, and understanding of their user communities-to create new places for lifelong learning, public space, and information provision for the citizens of San José and for students and faculty of San José State University. In his book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan speaks of the freedom of space in contrast with the security of place (Tuan 1997, 52). In King Library, we clearly see this idea in practice: the security of designated places such as group study rooms, silent floors, and the children’s room for specific groups and civic collaborations, as well as the freedom of space, such as that provided by the academic book stacks, in which to explore new ideas, knowledge, and learning partnerships.


Bartindale, Becky. 1998. Reading up on Proposed Library: Answers to Some Basic Questions on the Joint Venture between San Jose, San Jose State. San Jose Mercury News (September 6): 1B.

Berry, John N. 2004. The San Jose Model: Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year 2004. Library Journal 129 (June 15): 34–37.

Childers, Thomas A. 2002. San Jose Joint Library Metrics Project: Service Benchmarks, Round 1. Unpublished report.

Kranich, Nancy. 2004. Libraries: The Information Commons of Civil Society. In Douglas Schuler, ed., Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civic Society in Cyberspace. Boston: MIT Press.

Oldenburg, Ray. 1989. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day. New York: Paragon House.

San Jose Mercury News. Feb. 4, 1997. This is a New Era for the Bold. Page 6B.

Tisdale, Sallie. 1997. Silence, Please: The Public Library as Entertainment Center. Harper’s Magazine 294(1762): 65–73.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1997. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Witt, Barry. 1997. Joint City-SJSU Library Proposed: Mayor Forecasts Era of Stability, Well-being. San Jose Mercury News (February 4): 1A.


1For more information about the how the merger was accomplished, see Bartindale 1998, San Jose Mercury News 1997, and Witt 1997.

2 The importance of such community places is addressed at length in Oldenburg 1989.

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