Taking off

The new Central Library celebrates its grand opening on Saturday, May 20

It sits there on Nicollet Mall like a fixed-wing fighter ready to take off - if only it weren't attached to 353,000 square feet of concrete, glass, steel and books. Just waiting for Chuck Yeager to climb into its cockpit, tilt that one wing up, hit the thrust, pull back on the stick and write across the sky, &#8220It's done. Come and see the last Central Library Minneapolis will ever build.”

&#8220I just think it takes your breath away,” Minneapolis Public Library Director Kit Hadley says of the Cesar Pelli-designed, $138 million project set to open on Saturday, May 20.

The day's festivities will run from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., featuring author readings inside the library's Pohlad Hall (try not to mention Minnesota Twins Torii Hunter's impending departure in the 243-seat auditorium named for the ballclub's owner), world music and theater performances on a Nicollet Mall stage, and visits from famous librarians such as Batgirl (head librarian at the Gotham City Library), Ben Franklin (founder of America's first lending library) and Elvis (we all know how he loved to read the Physician's Desk Reference).

Looking around

Perhaps the most breath-taking part of the building is its atrium, formally known as the Library Commons. It's an uncommon area, linking the two entrances on Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue with the controversial wing above and towering glass walls, blonde wood, neon-decorated elevators, green-filled setbacks and a marble-art floor. (You'll be forgiven if it feels, at first, a little bit like you're in an Ikea megabox - no deals on a Ramvik coffeetable, though.)

The 8,140-square-foot Commons also has a Dunn Bros coffee shop and Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library bookstore featuring used books for sale.

When you enter the Commons, your eyes are drawn upward to the metal-ribbed ceiling making up the underside of the wing. From outside, the wing might appear to be an architectural flourish doing no one any good, but inside, it feels like part of something big and important and full of light. You know, like a new library. One of those places where information, history, culture and Harry Potter books intersect.

If you're looking for those Harry Potter books, or another children's book in the Upper Midwest's largest public library collection, head for the first-floor Children's Library, with wee desks and chairs and child-level places to talk to librarians and others. It's clear that someone, Cesar Pelli, perhaps, remembers what it's like to be short and young.

&#8220They even have a little baby toilet,” says Karen Boothe, library communications manager, as she conducts a tour of the new facility.

Big youth

A second-floor eye-catcher is the new Teen Central.

&#8220I'm convinced it needs its own signature martini,” says Boothe with a laugh, &#8220but they're not of age. It looks like a lounge. Very hip, cool.”

It might not be ready to host Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (not that Generation TXT would want to hear them), but the teen room does have a certain slink to it. Its Japanese Ash wood is stained in a rich, dark red accentuating the wood's swirly grain, and lending a paisley psychedelic quality to the room.

Teen Central also has art walls that can be moved up, down and around, giving patrons a chance to scrawl sanctioned graffiti on the premises.

The teen facility will feature lounge chairs, beanbag chairs, a music system (with highly directional speakers to keep one area's music from bleeding into another's), vending machines, a new CD collection and books chosen, in part, by teens.

The teen section has a more intimate feel than much of the new Central. Part of the design that the Library Board wanted incorporated into the new facility was an openness and flexibility that the old Central didn't have.

It has no interior load-bearing walls that would limit the facility's ability to adapt to future needs and wants. The large, open areas will enable librarians to more easily keep an eye on patrons, and it will enable the library system to move parts of the collection around, in or out, and put in new technologies in the future as they become available.

&#8220The fact that the inside is completely adaptable was a huge, huge goal of this building,” Hadley said. &#8220The one thing about what connecting people to information is going to look like in the next 10 years is that we don't have the first clue. So it was really important not to tie function to space and to not bet on what the technology of the future is going to look like. So the inside of the library is essentially a loft space.”

Some of the high-tech accoutrements include powered shelves that can be slid together so that they occupy less space than traditional shelves bolted to the floor. When a patron wants to browse a shelf, they can simply use the buttons on the shelves to move the entire unit, opening it up for perusal.

Boothe says sensors on the shelves will prevent patrons from being caught or mashed between the gigantic book containers as they quietly slide aside.

Future shock absorbers

Hadley says she doesn't know how long the inside of the new Central will look as it will on May 20. It might look that way for years; then again, big changes in information-sharing technology might come faster than anyone today expects.

&#8220This library can look completely different whenever it needs to,” she says. &#8220And that is what a library of the future should look like, if you will.

&#8220Whether this is the last library Minneapolis ever builds - 500 years from now, you know, maybe they'll build another one - the point is, it was designed to completely embrace the notion that what the library looks on the inside might change dramatically in the coming decades.”