New public library ‘at center of community’
Chicago’s new public library branch in Chinatown, a contemporary glassand-steel building with many energyconserving features, stands out amid brick structures that host numerous Chinese restaurants, hair salons and other small businesses. It has been buzzing with activities and patrons since its opening last August.
“Our new library connects the older section of Chinatown on Wentworth Avenue and the new Chinatown Square along Archer,” said Si Chen, Chinatown library branch manager. “We are the center of the community.”
The 16,000-square-foot, two-story library features a partially covered “living” roof, feng shui-influenced interior design and expansive views of the city.
Library service to the Chinatown community began in 1972 in a small storefront on Wentworth Avenue, according to the library’s website. An 11,000-square-foot rental facility was dedicated on Sept 28, 1990. The branch serves as a cultural and information center for those seeking information about the Chinatown community and Chinese culture.
Early in the morning, soon after the library opened its doors, a number of strollers were lined up beside the winding staircase leading to the second floor. A dozen or so toddlers gathered for storytelling in a community room, with their parents or grandparents sat around and listened as well.
“We come once a week,” said Tammy Ngai, 35. She brought her 3-yearold daughter, Katie, and mother.
Ngai said they moved to Chicago from Hong Kong last year and have attended activities at the library ever since.
“The stories are told in Mandarin or English,” continued Ngai. “I want Katie exposed to both languages.” They speak Cantonese at home.
Katie extended three figures with her right hand, indicating her age.
On the library’s ground floor, a large space is designated as the children’s area and is equipped with woodblocks, toys, and picture books in both Chinese and English. As many small children gathered to play, their parents socialized nearby.
Next to the children’s area is a section for teens, also called “YOUmedia”. It is partitioned by an acoustic green curtain that can be pulled to the side.
“Many teenagers come here after school to do homework, explore and learn digital technology,” said Chen, pointing to the cabinets where the equipment is stored, including a 3-D printer. Chen said the library provides a certified teacher to help the students.
On the other side of the building, there is an adult area that conjures an atmosphere of a casual café. It’s flooded with natural light and complete with bilingual magazines and three computers.
“We offer ESL (English as a Second Language), Chinese beginner and computer classes,” Chen said. “We also have a local group playing Chinese opera here twice a week, a tai chi group practicing every Saturday morning, and a book discussion group that meets once a month.”
On the second floor, an area with roundtables and chairs bustled with people. Chen said some seniors come to play chess here every day.
“With opera performance, chess playing and children’s activities, our library is not the traditional quiet place,” Chen said, smiling. “Additional group rooms are provided for those who want to read or have meetings.”
About 1,000 patrons visit the library each day, an increase of 25 percent compared with the old library.
Chen said that the Chinatown library had been the busiest branch in the Chicago Library System in the past and is even busier now because more people are drawn to the open space and user-friendly setting.
“Even tour buses to Chinatown are making a stop here now,” Chen added. “Tourists come to see the library’s unique design and use the computers and other services we provide.”
Designed by architect Brian Lee of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, recently won a national design award from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association. The library provides open space in the middle, embracing the Chinese courtyard tradition, and a rooftop garden visible from the nearby elevated CTA Station.
Chen said that Chicago’s Chinatown is booming with new life and business, and the library has become and will continue to be a community center.
The Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch opened in August 2015. The building’s architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, recently won national design awards from the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association.