DECEMBER 14, 2017
Episode 5 – Austin Central Library
John Gillum from Austin Central Library
In this episode, we talk with John Gillum, the Facilities Planning Manager at The Austin Public Library. John has worked for the library for 38 years. Most of his career has been spent building branch libraries around Austin, 18 to be exact. Years ago, Austin’s need for a new downtown public library arose due to population increase and outdated technology. After 4 years of construction, the new Central Library opened on Saturday, October 28th, 2017.
Read the Transcript
Lisa Graham (00:00):
So welcome to this week’s episode of Change the Rules podcast. I’m Lisa Graham, co-founder of Notley. And with me today is my fellow co-founder Dan Graham and our episode guest John Gillum. He’s the Facilities Process Manager at the Austin Public l:brary, and we’re very excited to have him and to chat about the new Central Library. Thank you for coming.
John Gillum (00:17):
Thank you for having me.
Lisa Graham (00:18):
It’s great to have you here. So what I would like to know is just to start out to give people a background- I’d love to know what your role is with the public library. And what part did you play in getting this amazing new facility?
John Gillum (00:32):
Well, my new director tends to call me the facilities director and although I don’t have that title, that kind of sums it up pretty well. It’s probably what the facilities guy back in Houston at the Houston Public Library, he just came from there… That’s probably the title he had, but basically I’m in charge of planning and construction and the people who take care of maintenance and security and cleaning and grounds keeping and all that kind of stuff report to me. So I’m kind of a combination library planner, capital budget officer, and construction manager. And I probably do a few other things, but I forget.
Lisa Graham (01:13):
Yeah. And so, and can you also tell us the story- It’s a great story- of how long you’ve been with the library and how you got to where you are. It sounds like wearing all that, like literally wearing all the hats, wearing the construction hats…
John Gillum (01:25):
Well, you know, the library has grown a lot, but it used to be that we all wore a lot of different hats because there weren’t that many of us. I first started with the city of Austin in 1974-75 at Breckenridge hospital, when that was a city department. I was an emergency room technician. I thought it’d be quieter at the library. I was wrong [laughter]. Right out of the frying pan, into the fire. I’ve never-
Dan Graham (01:50):
[You…] had a number of injuries.
John Gillum (01:53):
Never had a quiet moment since. I was over there by 1979. And I, it’s mainly a question of showing up for work every day and they’d go, “Do you know how to do this?” And I go, “Sure.” And then I’d go find a book on it and find out how to do it. And all of a sudden, all of a sudden it became my job. So- but I got to be the library planner. I got to design and build libraries and I can’t think of a better job. I just love libraries and you know, that’s where the books are. And so that’s- that’s really the most fun part of my job. I think I’ve built about, oh God, or built or rebuilt about 18 branch libraries. And then I got to do this big project.
Lisa Graham (02:38):
Yeah, so how did this project come about? What I love about this story too, and I’d love to hear more about how this came about because Austin has had a library downtown. You know, I went to it as a kid- I’ve grown up here, so I grew up going there and using microfiche and microfilm to do research projects.
John Gillum (02:53):
I made that microfiche for it.
Lisa Graham (02:56):
You did! Thank you!
Dan Graham (02:56):
Did you really use the microfiche or did you just watch it spin by?
Lisa Graham (02:59):
No, I really used it and I, because I love libraries and I loved books and so I love research. And so that to me was the coolest thing to get to use those machines.
John Gillum (03:09):
They’re still there. Come back and we’ll play with them.
Lisa Graham (03:11):
Awesome. [Laughter] That’d be great. And but you know, so much is changing in Austin and Austin is growing. And so how did this project come to be? Was it this idea that we needed a new facility? How did this come-
John Gillum (03:23):
Well, you know, Austin has been growing like a weed since I got here- I guess I’m part of the problem. I came here to go to school back in the sixties and wouldn’t leave. And I think that’s why we have a big city now- people acting that way. And so most of my, my professional career with the library has been building branch libraries to keep up with the growth, right? So I’ve always been working out on this in the suburbs and trying to keep up with, you know, the neighborhood’s needs for branch libraries. But about 1992, the citizens started asking for a new central library. Of course, we had the John Henry Fox Center Library downtown. It was built in 1979, but that was when we had a population of about 365,000. And we’re considerably bigger now. And I don’t think that building anticipated the computer age very well. It’s the nicest way I can put it. And so people started showing up and asking for our new central library. And I think that’s when I started working on the design and the budget. And there were people that lobbied to have a bond election in 1992 to find it. And they came back in 1998 and fought the same battle and we kept building branch libraries. I think in that period of time, I built about 14 libraries while people were petitioning for a new library downtown. Mayor Kirk, Kirk Watson, sort of recognized the need and established a blue ribbon citizens group called the Libraries for the Future group. And they went out and took input and declared, yes, we need a new central library that probably helped to get on the 2006 bond election. And after that, it was off to the races. We went to work
Lisa Graham (05:18):
When you’re building branches or considering a new central library. How do you determine the need? You know, what are the metrics that you use to decide, “Oh, we need a bigger library or a new branch.”
John Gillum (05:29):
Yeah. For branch libraries, it’s usually a question of how far is it to a branch library from an area of town that’s been incorporated? You know, we’ve- it’s become part of the city. If they have to drive three to four miles and there’s 30,000 citizens there, then we go, okay, it’s time to get them a branch library. When they expand them is a little trickier. It’s based really on usage. If, you know, if a branch library is being overrun every day, then we’ll probably put it on a bond election to double the size of it. And we’ve done that quite a bit. The new central library- we just outgrew it. And there’s not really a formula for that. But it was- it just became a real obvious need.
Lisa Graham (06:21):
Yeah, you had mentioned, and putting it in a very nice way that the, you know, the old building was not, did not anticipate technology and the changes there. So what are things that you have worked into this new library that are really necessary: that are in response to new technological needs, new technological assets and ways people can access information?
John Gillum (06:42):
Well, there has, oddly enough, I suppose people, oddly enough… If you talk to people that, you know, get all their information over the internet and they don’t think there’s a need for libraries, there’s been a Renaissance of new central library design and construction. Since about 1995, cities have realized that libraries are much more than just a repository for books. They are like an informal town hall where everybody likes to go and talk to their fellow citizens. And the new libraries that we saw being built across the country included amenities that no one in Texas has ever seen at a public library. So naturally we tracked all that. And it’s, I don’t know if necessary is the right word, but it was- a lot of the things that we did were desirable. People wanted them. They said they wanted them. I believe they do, because we can barely contain all the people that are showing up to see the library and use it every day, now that we’ve got it open. So what did we roll into it? Well, we have a- we have a rooftop garden. I don’t know if that’s essential, but people sure love it, we have to beg them to leave at closing and they want, they don’t want to get off the roof. You know-
Dan Graham (08:04):
They’re just hiding in the trees.
Lisa Graham (08:06):
Yeah, there is. Yeah. And there is a tree, a lot of people don’t know that there is a beautiful,
John Gillum (08:11):
It’s an Oak tree. We couldn’t think of anything more representative in central Texas than the live oak. And you know, we’re right now doing the finish out for our new cafe, we’re going to have the Bookstore Cafe [now called Cookbook Cafe & Bar’ run by the people that run 24 Diner and Easy Tiger. And, and that they’re, they have others. They like to work downtown. And since they have little kids and they were already in the libraries anyway, we thought we’d give them another chance to do that. We have a special event center. As a consequence, we will never have a dull moment ever again, because people are renting it and using it like crazy. We had a big puppet show there Saturday, and there-
Dan Graham (08:54):
It was a lot of people at the puppets- a lot of puppets or the puppets were very large?
John Gillum (08:59):
I’m going to go with the puppets were small, but actually the people that came were small too. There was an awful lot of them, like 400 of them to me. And with their parents, of course. So it’s, you know- it’s a central library that’s really a library for the future. We had to- we had to benchmark people like the Amsterdam Central Library that was built a few years ago or Seattle that was built a little bit before that, but it has never had a quiet moment since, because they provide so much for people to do. We have technology petting zoos. We have an innovation lounge. We have a dozen meeting spaces ofvarious sizes. We have a collection of about a half a million, a kiosk where you can check out the laptop of your choice or play with one that you’ve never played with before. People like to do that.
Dan Graham (09:56):
What is the technology petting zoo? Is that for like robot goats?
John Gillum (10:00):
Well, there’s a- I know it’s a good question. Most people- most people like to, you know, dive in the shark tank, the virtual reality dive, which apparently is really scary, and I’ve never had a chance to do it though, because someone’s always there before.
Lisa Graham (10:16):
Y’all like a VR, like a virtual reality set up. That’s cool.
Dan Graham (10:19):
That is cool. Yeah, that doesn’t sound very book like at all.
John Gillum (10:22):
We’re not very bookish.
Lisa Graham (10:24):
What percent- what percent of the overall square footage is actually dedicated to books, the way that most people would think about a library?
John Gillum (10:31):
You know maybe two thirds of it. You know, there’s still a lot of people with a love affair for the book. And the internet’s actually caused an incredible boom in hard cover publishing. So more people are getting published ever before. And there’s a lot of people that love the book and that’s what they, you know, they apparently can’t cuddle up with a laptop at night when they’re going to bed and read. So we have to have the books for them.
Lisa Graham (11:00):
What are some of your favorite best practices that you guys brought to the Austin Library that you got from other libraries? You mentioned a few and one when Dan and I were lucky enough to go on a tour before you guys opened. And I think one of the most- the areas that I was most excited to see was you said there was a reading nook that was decked out and designed like a library would maybe have looked decades or even a hundred years ago. And that- and one library that you guys looked at that was the most popular place to be in the library. So what are some ideas like that, that you guys got from other folks?
John Gillum (11:33):
Okay. We’d benchmarked everybody across two continents. So let me see if I can remember whoever- where everybody- we got our ideas from, but…
Dan Graham (11:41):
And did you travel to some of those places?
John Gillum (11:44):
Dan Graham (11:44):
Did they coincidentally overlap with places you wanted to visit?
John Gillum (11:47):
Yes, my wife hates me cause we take vacations and I wander off to the library. I do that really, really [laughter] religiously, but every now and then the city goes, “We really want you to look at this central library.” So I’ve been sent on, you know, to look at a few, as well. But the the historical niche that you’re referencing, we learned that in the OBA, the Amsterdam Central Library- you know, Amsterdam’s an incredibly modern city. They have an incredibly modern library and- but they built one little part of the building to look like their 1873 central library. You know, the all wooden tables, the green lamps, the card catalog, the file card catalogs. And so we observed that, you know, the Dutch all wanted to sit in that area, which amazed us. And so we thought we would do the same here and build a portion of our library that looks like our 1993- I’m sorry,1933 central library. That’s the history center now, because we just wanted to see if Austinites would act the same way. Pretty much they do. They find it popular, but we, we wind up explaining what a file card catalog is a lot.
Lisa Graham (13:06):
It’s more of a history lesson for some people.
John Gillum (13:06):
Right. So we, you know, we got the idea for the restaurant from both the OBA and from places like the Boston Public Library. And I think that’s going to be really popular. We have an art gallery, a number of new central libraries have done that. And since Austin has more artists than anything, I suppose, well, we figure we’ll always have something showing there. What else did we get from other people? They the street, we had to build a street in front of our library Second Street. And so we patterned it after a street we saw in Amsterdam that didn’t have curbs and the bollards retracted into the ground at the throw of a switch. So it’s like Instant Plaza when you need one. So if you ever look at Second Street next to the new Central Library, you’ll say that’s our festival street and a.
Dan Graham (14:02):
It really confuses Uber drivers though.
Lisa Graham (14:04):
Dan Graham (14:05):
Ther street disappears at a moment’s notice.
John Gillum (14:08):
Yeah. It can be a bit confusing. I don’t know if I’m going to have to splash more paint around to show people how to stay within the lines but it might come to that. Of course we have a quiet reading room because I’ll, you know, we tend to build- we used to build quiet libraries with a few noisy places, and now we build noisy libraries with a few quiet places, I’ll be honest. And so we have a grand reading room that, you know, we probably got the idea from a number of central libraries, but you can tell it’s different. You walk in there and all of a sudden it’s really quiet, the way libraries used to be, and people are in there reading, and should I ever retire that’s where you’ll find me and it’s a really nice room to read in. And you know, we- in our design, we wanted to provide some really incredible interior views. So if you come to the library, you’ll see that we- the, the biggest design feature of the interiors is the atrium. And you have really crazy stairwells and yeah-
Dan Graham (15:12):
Like rancher or Hogwarts styles
John Gillum (15:17):
A little bit confused if you look around in it. I had the bad luck to do this and then realize that my director and my assistant director both had a fear of heights. It did not occur to me that somebody might be a little worried about, you know, climbing to heaven up all these stairwells. It’s okay. They retired and I got a new set and they’re not.
Dan Graham (15:41):
Right. That was part of the interview process. You took them up on a crane. [cocophony of voices; laughter].
John Gillum (15:46):
Yeah, exactly. So it worked out. So we have great exterior views, you know, and we have- you get up on the rooftop garden, you can see the Hill country from one side, you can walk around and see the incredible city we’ve built on the other side, the built environment. It’s a fun place. The special events center was an idea that we got from a number of libraries too. And they all went, “Give it a flat floor because you can do so much more, so much more versatile than the tiered auditorium type seating.” So I expect somebody to come in and tell me to put a wooden floor down so they can do ballroom dancing. We’re ready.
Lisa Graham (16:23):
You’re ready for it.
John Gillum (16:24):
We’re ready for it.
Dan Graham (16:25):
One of the, one of the features that I feel like gets mentioned the most is, is it a rooster?
John Gillum (16:30):
John Gillum & Lisa Graham (16:31):
Oh, it’s a grackle.
Dan Graham (16:32):
Yes. And what other animals did you consider?
John Gillum (16:36):
Well, we actually-
Dan Graham (16:38):
And what is it?
John Gillum (16:38):
The grackle was always the front runner. We we had an art in public places portion of this project. So artists flew in from around the world you know, divide for the commission and this nice gifted artist from Austria, Christian Mueller, flew in from Vienna and we picked him up and we were taking him around showing him what you need to know in Austin, how to two-step, things like that. I’m pretty sure he knew how to drink beer already. And we kept losing him. We’d find him out in the parking lot communing with our local blackbird, the grackle, most people don’t do that. And but he-
Dan Graham (17:15):
And you were like, this is our guy. He’s talking to the birds.
John Gillum (17:21):
He convinced us that, you know, the blackbird and he had a love affair with the blackbird of the world, talked about it and literature and mythology convinced us we weren’t paying enough respect to the grackle. And so we have a huge sculpture that pays homage to the grackle. Now, just in case you want more, there’s a computerized grackle that goes with it that will interact with you. If you go over and stand in front of it, if you lose your child at the library, they’re probably going to be in front of that-
Lisa Graham (17:51):
in front of-
John Gillum (17:51):
In front of the grackle.
Lisa Graham (17:52):
Is that of a pendulum? Does that pendulum, is that a perpetual- working forever?
John Gillum (17:55):
Yes, apparently. So it’s the closest thing to no maintenance I’ve ever found, which I’m really excited about as a maintenance person. This is what I’ve been looking for. Ah, apparently… it was made by the Swiss family. In Switzerland, they’ve been doing it for 500 years for cathedrals. And if it ever breaks, I’m going to pack it up and fly to Switzerland and tell them to fix it up.
Dan Graham (18:22):
Do they give you the return.
John Gillum (18:26):
Yeah, whatever. They’re very confident I’ll never have that problem. So it’s, it’s, it is a unique sculpture.
Lisa Graham (18:31):
Yeah. And it’s such a beautiful building and we’ve talked a bit about the design of it. And when you guys were talking about designing this building and what the purpose of the building was going to be did you guys have a set of values you were working around? Was there a mission statement around it? How did you guys really structure those decisions and what drove those decisions?
John Gillum (18:53):
We were… you know, we’ve been in library work all our life, right… And been designing them and thinking about them and you know tracking the trends in library services cause libraries morph every year; they become something different and yet people still want us. So we stay in front of that… Our directions from city management- city council- were to build the library of the future. I hope you never get that tough an assignment because we quickly realized that no one can predict the future.
Dan Graham (19:30):
Oh, is that all?
John Gillum (19:32):
And how- we even hired a library futurist- there is such a thing. It’s a profession-
Lisa Graham (19:37):
Wait- is it a profession or is it a person?
John Gillum (19:39):
It’s a profession. And we hired a really talented lady, Joan Fry, right from California. She flew in and scared us to death because she didn’t have a single idea that was within the box. It was pretty scary stuff, but we incorporated every idea. We were brave enough to incorporate because we wanted to build the library of the future. So when you walk around the library and you go, a lot of these shelving units are on wheels. That because if you can’t predict the future, you ought to be readily adaptable-
Lisa Graham (20:12):
Put it on wheels!
John Gillum (20:13):
That’s it! Move it! If you want to do something different here, move it out of the way. And all the floors are raised floors so we have all our voice and data just waiting for us under the floor, in case we want to move things and bring up voice and data and do something different there. Turn a shelving range into a computer section. We can do that practically overnight. So our whole mantra became, you know, make it adaptable. So, and the whole building is built to change really easily. So- and you know, the other part of our mission was to build a building that would be a destination for people locally and for people visiting. And so that, you know, that’s a tough one too. That means you’ve got to build significant architecture. You’ve got to make something that is unusual. And I think David Lake out of… Lake | Flato was our principal designer, and I think he hit that one out of the ballpark from everything everybody’s been telling us; they find it a really unique building. And when I walked through the building, I hear people speaking all the languages of the world. So some of those people came from further than central Texas. And that was it! Build something that will be a destination for our citizens and for tourists and build it to be, you know, on the cutting edge. So we, we just poured as much technology into it as we could. That is the most technology-rich building inch by inch that you’ll ever find.
Lisa Graham (21:49):
Dan Graham (21:49):
Well, you mentioned unusual and unique, you know- so I’m going to use the word… I’m going to ask about what- what’s the weirdest thing in the library?
John Gillum (21:59):
Well, the the grackle sculpture I’ve affectionately called the cuckoo clock might be, you know, a leading contender for that. But you know, people- you know, we have we have chairs that you can sit on and they rotate with you and you have to be a bit of a gymnast not to be thrown off-
Dan Graham (22:22):
It’s like a rodeo chair.
John Gillum (22:23):
You got it. It’s, you know, only for the brave.
Dan Graham (22:25):
-Crazy bidets in the bathroom…
John Gillum (22:28):
You never, you know, never a quiet moment around those chairs. And the little kids all have chairs that look like little bitty elephants. And yes, everybody asked me, “Didn’t they come in little bitty donkeys.” No, they did not. They came as little bitty elephants, and we have porches up in the air on the third and fourth floor. Early in design, David Lake and I were joking around about what kind of parts of old Texas culture we could roll into this building. And we were kidding about putting a dog run in it, and I guess that became the atrium. And then we went, “Porches!”. And so there’s porches for the kids to go out on and burn off energy and another porch for grownups to sit out on and enjoy in our natural environment.
Dan Graham (23:15):
And we got to see a couple of them. And you know, on those porches, you can see kind of all of the literary words and phrases that are put onto, I guess, kind of the metal siding. Was there a committee that decided who- who got to decide what words were going to be permanently put on?
John Gillum (23:33):
You know, we, we wanted to- this comes up with the fact that we wanted to build the best day lit library in the world. And we did until somebody tops us. And because- we early in design, we were going, “What do we have here in central Texas that we have, you know, we can use and we- sunshine came to mind. And so we just pump sunshine into the building, but we’re not crazy. We build here in central Texas. So we knew we had to, we had to shade that Eastern sun when it comes up in the morning and the sun in the Southwest, when it goes down in the evening, cause you don’t want to drive your air conditioning costs through the roof. And so we, you know, we just did basic screening on the Southwest side, but we thought we’d get fancy to greet the morning sun. And we asked our library director at the time if she had any quotes about libraries. She had about 2000; we used about 200 of them. And so if, you know, when the sun comes up, that’s the first thing it sees is the library quotes. And it’s kind of fun. And we extended it down. We put it outside the reading room and we extended it down over the teen center because we thought they could use the culture. We put all the really cool quotes down there from Bob Marley and, and Keith Richards, you’d be amazed at the people that have opinions about books. So it’s kind of fun that that turned out well.
Lisa Graham (24:53):
So what’s the last book you read?
John Gillum (24:54):
The last book I read. Hm, Hm, Hm. The Red Shoes.
Lisa Graham (25:03):
Did you enjoy it?
John Gillum (25:04):
Lisa Graham (25:05):
John Gillum (25:06):
Dan Graham (25:07):
Did you read it on a Kindle?
John Gillum (25:09):
No, I did not. One of the people that worked for me walked by and went, “You must read this,” and gave it to me. And most of the time I’m reading I am, you know, a reader by nature, but my life and my, my job has gotten so busy most of the time I’m reading library planning stuff.
Lisa Graham (25:27):
John Gillum (25:27):
And but every now and then I work in a work of fiction.
Lisa Graham (25:30):
John Gillum (25:31):
John Gillum (25:32):
Yeah. The Red Shoes. I recommend it.
Dan Graham (25:34):
I’m curious to see, you know, a lot of times when people are so involved with the building of anything, they kind of put some pieces in that maybe are a little hidden or personally meaningful for them or a select group, you know, call it Easter eggs or… Is there anything like that in the library that you kind of built?
John Gillum (25:52):
You know, this is something I’ve been working on for a very long time. So yeah. A lot of those kinds of things happen somewhere in the building. I won’t tell you where is- we put a time capsule in with quotes from all of us people that worked on it every day, right? The architects, the engineers, a bunch of the construction guys. So we, we put that in the building, but there’s all kinds of crazy little things. We’ll have a kiosk on the roof when I get through building it, that looks like a bookmobile paying homage to our history. And I just want the coffee personally. Right- with somebody up there with the really good cup of coffee when I’m on the roof. There’s just all kinds of little crazy things like that. So part of our job was to demolish what had been on that site before- power production stuff; right across the Creek was the water treatment plant.
John Gillum (26:46):
And because we’re building nerds by nature, we couldn’t throw some of it away. And so when you walk through the library and you go, wait a minute, is that a Relic or an artifact? It probably is. We just couldn’t throw it away. So there’s like really beautiful limestone that’s carved and no one had ever seen it except, you know, guys carrying tools and were in uniforms at the water treatment plant. But it was a really beautiful piece of architectural masonry. So we just stuck it somewhere. And on the children’s porch, these really large wheels that used to control water valves at the water treatment plant. And now they’re, they’re painted primary colors and they’re just there for fun and they are fun. So when you walk around and you see things like that, yeah, that was us. We just couldn’t throw it out.
Lisa Graham (27:35):
Yeah. Well, this has been really great. Thank you so much for joining us-
John Gillum (27:39):
It was so much fun, thank you!
Lisa Graham (27:39):
-And yeah, it’s been great. I think definitely if you haven’t checked it out, please check out the new public library. It is absolutely beautiful. People are calling it the new jewel of Austin, and I think it’s something our city has needed and people are flocking to it. So I think- I talk to somebody every day that’s raving about how incredible it is. So-
Dan Graham (27:59):
Yeah, truly amazing.
Lisa Graham (28:00):
Yeah. It’s beautiful.
Dan Graham (28:00):
Thank you for what you’ve done.
Lisa Graham (28:02):
Yeah. Yes, thank you for bringing it to Austin. Austin’s needed it. And-
John Gillum (28:07):
It is a labor of love. Come down and- come down and visit us
Lisa Graham (28:10):
We will. We’ll be there a lot. So John Gillum, thank you so much for joining us today. And if you’re listening and you haven’t been to the new library yet, it is at 710 West Cesar Chavez in the Seaholm district. And you can also find the new Austin Central Library online at Library.AustinTexas.gov/CentralLibrary. And this Notley podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio and the amazing Shayna Brown. Thank you, Shana for making us sound smarter than we are and check out her studio online at ChezBoomAudio.com. That’s C H E Z Boom Audio.com. And if you want to learn more about Notley and our social innovation projects, head to notleyventures.com. Thank you for listening.