The main entrance to the new Capitola Library
The main entrance to the new Capitola Library is close to where it was at the old building, but that’s about where the similarities end.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Community hub of the future: New Capitola Library a stunning step forward in design and utility

The design of the beautiful new Capitola Library sends a message: Libraries aren’t about storing old books, they are about communities coming together. It’s a lesson Santa Cruz should take to heart as plans for its new downtown library start to take shape.

Stand with me just inside the entrance to the spanking new Capitola Public Library, here over by the fireplace in the magazine corner. Look back across the length of the library.

Notice anything? That’s right: Where are all the books?

There are books here, of course, lots of them. But if you haven’t stepped foot in a public library since that ninth-grade term-paper fiasco (you know what I’m talking about), then you might be surprised at the design of this library and many others around the Bay Area.

Those congested and densely packed eight-foot-tall bookshelves that formed imposing canyons of literary possibility (or dread and bewilderment, if you weren’t a book person), those things are generally a thing of the past.

At this gorgeously designed new library, jutting up from the corner of Clares Street and Wharf Road, the bookshelves directly in front of us are not tall at all, coming up to the rib cage of an adult man, giving anyone coming in an expansive view of the library and drawing attention to the high ceiling, curved to a ridge in the center to suggest the bottom of a ship’s hull. Copious natural light pours in from floor-to-ceiling windows (overlooking the odd Rispin Mansion in one corner).

The effect is to favor empty space over stuff, and most of that empty space is above our heads, space of no practical use, space that is only aesthetically valuable. There’s a reason that old libraries were built like cathedrals. The imagination, the spirit, whatever that thing is that’s activated by books — turns out, it needs as much space as the physical body, if not more.

The high ceiling in the new library is meant to evoke the bottom of a ship's hull.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It makes no sense in a digital era to use a library as a warehouse for old books. Yes, bookish introverts who value getting lost in the stacks and discovering new worlds in dusty half-forgotten volumes might be dismayed at the design of the new library. That’s because it’s very people-oriented.

Capitola, like many of the library branches that have opened in the region in the 21st century, devotes a lot of space for people to meet, a capacious community room, a glassed-in teen room, a small study-group room, and a lounge-y meeting room that looks something like a college coffeehouse.

Also like most new libraries, roughly half of the building’s floor space is given over to children. The children’s section is roomy and colorful, with green plates on the ceiling that resemble the leaves of a very big tree but are actually designed as acoustic panels to help absorb noise. This generational awareness, that children who bond with libraries are likely to use them their entire lives, is nothing new in library design. Still, it’s thrilling to see it still given such a priority.

The deck area with Adirondack-style chairs adds space for reading and gathering at the new Capitola Branch Library.
The deck area with Adirondack-style chairs adds space for reading and gathering, and allows parents and guardians to keep an eye on the nearby play structure, too.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The children’s section opens up to the sweetest feature of all, a large deck with several Adirondack-style chairs overlooking a tiny playground and play structure. It feels like hanging out in someone else’s Capitola river cottage, with functioning wi-fi. The back deck, in fact, expands the rather limited “hanging-out” space inside, but even those corners feel like inviting real estate, the furniture both utilitarian and vaguely mid-century modern.

None of this came cheap or easy. The pandemic delayed the library’s opening by a year, and unanticipated costs sent the price tag northward. The project, budgeted at $13.5 million, $10 million of which was paid for by the passage of Measure S in 2016, is the largest capital project the city of Capitola has ever undertaken.

But the final result is a jewel. The old Capitola Library, which closed in the spring of 2018, had a kind of makeshift charm; it felt like a bit like Mrs. Klein’s fifth-grade social-studies mobile unit. By contrast, the new library fits comfortably in a digitized world where social capital and in-person interactions are more valued than ever.

Perhaps the most meaningful little touch at the new library, at least for book-lovers in Capitola and beyond, is some of the art on the walls. Whimsical portraits of such literary icons as Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Stephen Crane might tickle the memories of locals. That’s because they all once used to belong to the late Capitola Book Café, which closed to the laments of many in 2014. Like putting familiar family photos on the wall of a new house, it feels right that something from the old Book Café survives in this new community resource.

The deepest value of public libraries, of course, is that they provide a respite from the relentless commercialism of nearly every other public space. Libraries aren’t luxuries for communities. They are, in many places, the material embodiment of community. That’s what Capitola is likely to learn in the years ahead.

Capitola joins a growing number of communities in the region that have embraced the new library as informational hub and community meeting place. If you have a mind to — as I have done — you can take a tour of the fine new-ish libraries of Santa Cruz County and the South Bay — Felton, Live Oak, Watsonville, Scotts Valley, Half Moon Bay, Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Los Gatos. They are each comfortable and accessible spaces in the cacophony and chaos of modern life. Every city and town should have one.

So, Santa Cruz, you’re up.