Bridging the Gap

Gensler defines the connection between the digital age and analog paper with the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

by Elianne Halbersberg

Located on the ground floor of the McKim building of the Boston Public Library, the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center is home to a collection of 200,000 original historic maps and 5000 atlases, as well as 3700 digitized maps on its website. The size of its collection, historic materials dating to pre-1900, and advanced digitization program rank it among the top ten in the United States.

Gensler renovated the center with state-of-the-art gallery lighting, new mechanical systems and an overall redesign of the space. What began as a basic project took on a life of its own as work moved forward and both the Leventhal family and the library became increasingly engaged in the opportunity to create something special, according to Kenneth Fisher, principal and project director.

The McKim building is one of two main spaces of the library (the other is the Johnson building), and is adjacent to a landmark courtyard. Originally, it functioned as the stacks area of the library and was surrounded by heavy steel frames. In the early 1990s, one of the stacks levels was removed to create a double-height space that became the micro-text reading room. That’s where Gensler’s work began. “There were adjacent spaces that take up other parts of the program, but the major gallery space went in there,” says Fisher. “There’s a bare, vaulted ceiling with a stucco finish. We were able to strip out most of the finishes, reroute the mechanical and soften the ceiling. It’s a much gentler arch now. The adjacent spaces were low-level exposed arched flooring systems. That’s where we worked in terms of developing storage for the collection, research areas and curatorial areas, as well as the administrative suite for the Map Center directorship.”

The Map Center includes a public gallery space, educational programs for students in grades K – 12, public research and reading room, scholar’s research area, administrative and curatorial offices, and storage and preservation and work areas.

The front foyer displays include a globe and a stained glass piece and portion of a favorite map that was a gift from Norman Leventhal’s son in honor of the philanthropist’s 94th birthday in November 2011. “It’s kind of the calling card to the whole Map Center, even though it’s in a non-designated location within the library,” says Fisher.

With the digital age unfortunately calling into question at times the relevance of libraries, the Boston Public Library’s leadership saw opportunity in the redesign. “This is a way to bring people of all walks of life, of all levels, to what is quite a special collection within the library,” says Fisher. “The key was a gradient of expertise. You have world-class scholars that come to look at the collection and research, but you always want to engage and excite new learners, school and pre-school programs as well as the layperson coming in just to enjoy the collection. So spatially, you’ve got what turned out to be this long linear gallery. As you move from the very public end that enters from an interior court — the intersection between the two buildings — through the back, there are research areas and secured areas where the most valuable pieces of the collection can be viewed by scholars, and then the curatorial staff.”

The gallery is a tall, narrow space adjacent to the courtyard. Because it had previously been structured on two levels, the lower-level windows create a niche area conducive to children. The storage area was laid out to accommodate files and large containers. The research area was designed for flexibility as a place to view maps and hold presentations. The administration area was an existing space; Gensler opened some walls and created the executive director and lead curator’s offices.

Making the spaces accordingly conducive to users presented some challenges. The reading room, with its low ceilings, required critical attention to the lighting scheme, as a place where patrons would spend long periods of time seated at tables to study archives. “In terms of comfort and being within the space to view intricate materials, the lighting was of great importance, and it was challenging given the structure of the room,” says Fisher. “We found a way to do an indirect lighting system for some broader, even illumination. The tables are flexible so that depending on the size of the object or how many people are working on it, it can accommodate a number of configurations. We worked with our designer, LAM Partners Inc., to get the right profiles on the fixtures and using what was there as an advantage instead of an impediment. In some ways, the arched ceiling works nicely in terms of diffusing the indirect light.”

The main gallery was upgraded with cast-in-place epoxy terrazzo and the back spaces were covered with carpet tile to dampen the acoustic noise against the hard ceilings and lower ceilings. The interior walls and mechanical systems were reworked to create better display areas. Along the upper wall, a horizontal band presented itself as an exhibit area of sorts. “We went through a number of schemes with the Map Center and library staff and everyone liked the idea of a continuous map frieze,” says Fisher. “It was created on a graphic film that’s applied to the painted wall.”

The storage area requires a separate mechanical system to control humidity and temperature variations for preservation of the archives. Maps under glass in the gallery are displayed on a rotational basis to avoid deterioration, then returned to the storage environment. “This is the first environmentally secure location in that part of the library, so we developed that separately and modified the base building system for the balance and spaces,” says Fisher.

While technology makes it possible to archive the maps digitally, the Boston Public Library understands that many patrons still want to experience original, physical archives and their history. “It’s a really good question and it was discussed a lot relative to developing the appropriate exhibits,” says Fisher. “They are looking to bridge the analog paper age to the digital age and a lot of their collection has been digitized. In terms of the scholarly work, there are things you learn when you are dealing with the original. The Map Center has the ability to link the history of maps and everything in terms of human development very physically. At some point you have to be built on a foundation, and I don’t think that foundation is digital because it doesn’t come from the original source. There is something very thrilling about looking at something that’s 400 years old and understanding it in that context, which you would never realize if you were just looking at it online or on your iPhone. I think it’s a pretty important relationship to link everything that we see digitally with the reality of where it came from, and I think the intent of the library and the Map Center is to make relevant the origin of what we understand today as only being digital. I think people see that and it’s been successful that way. The exhibits were designed to make that link. There are some exhibits where you can look at a digitized example of an atlas and flip through that, but the actual atlas is sitting there under glass and you can relate the pages that way. The collection is phenomenal, and they had plans that were orphaned for far too long. There’s something special about this institution, and people in this city find it of great importance.”