New Mendenhall Valley library nears final planning phase

The two lead architects on the Mendenhall Library have a vision for the site to become something much greater than simply a place Juneau keeps some of its books. They want the final building to become part of the civic fabric that makes up the place they both call home.


James Bibb and Steve Simpson grew up as childhood friends in Juneau, so they are taking extreme care while designing the new 20,600-foot valley library to ensure it fits Juneau.

“We’re trying to have a person standing inside this place feel connected to the region and the Mendenhall Valley, specifically,” said Simpson, the project designer who now works for THA Architecture, a Portland-based firm with library design expertise.

That connectiveness is achieved by several features in the building, but particularly a “clear-story” window that wraps around the top of walls allowing the public to view the mountain peaks surrounding the location from inside.

A spruce forest at the site currently with be preserved with the underbrush removed to allow a close connection to the outdoors when coupled with a mostly glass wall that will line the side of the library facing the spruce garden, Simpson said.

Special attention was paid to Juneau’s unique amount of sunlight when designing the angle of the building and the roof, said Bibb who is the project’s second-in-charge and with the local firm NorthWind Architecture.

The roof will be a single slope angled down toward the inner spruce garden to allow sunlight into the building through the clear-story window, and to prevent the building from casting a shadow on the spruce garden.

Drivers coming to the library from any direction will see the glow of the building through the high windows — an intentional move to attract the public inside, Bibb said.

“In this climate with so much darkness and rain, public buildings need to be warm and inviting,” he said.

The outer walls will be a reddish brick to match the rustic look of some buildings downtown, like the state building, and to convey that warmer feel, Bibb said. There will also be a large covered section in front of the entryway with ample places to lock up bikes while being protected from the elements like rain or snow.

The project has been on the city’s mind since the land was purchased in the 1980’s for the purpose of building a library there someday, but it was a combination of need and monetary contributions that accelerated the process, said Robert Barr, the library director for the Juneau Public Library.

“The library service in the valley is undersized for the size of the population in the valley,” Barr said. “We’re more than doubling the library service to better and more adequately serve the patrons currently using the valley library.”

The current location is a 9,300-square-foot space rented in the Mendenhall Mall which sees between 12,000 and 15,000 visits a month. The new facility is projected to attract between 16,000 and 20,000 visitors a month, and the number of items on-site will increase to about 50,000.

Juneau’s main library downtown is about the same square footage as the planned library, but the newer facility will house more books and “feel more spacious” due to the design, Barr said.

City officials will host the final public meeting sometime late next month, and bidding for the project will commence sometime in March with construction likely to begin in April.

A year and a half later, the Mendenhall Valley should have its own public library in Diamond Park near Thunder Mountain High School. The project’s price tag is about $14 million.

The site will have a large children’s section to accommodate the larger number of children living in the valley, and the first library room dedicated to teenage literature, particularly because the site’s proximity to Thunder Mountain High School.

There will also be four study rooms for small study groups, a small meeting room for boards and associations and a larger meeting room that could be used for presentations, talks or even film screenings. All room reservations will be free to the public.

“It has to be specialized in one way, but also so flexible in others,” Bibb said. “We are building a place for a library now, and looking 20 years down the road.”

A ground-source heat pump — a particularly unique feature of the building — will not be directly noticed by the public, but is a big cost saver for the library, Barr said. The mechanism uses groundwater pulled from deep wells to heat the building at much lower rates than electricity.

“We’ll have the same operational costs in the new library as we do now,” Barr said. “Which is pretty amazing considering we’re doubling in size.”

The larger facility has the capacity to hold up to about 65,000 items. The number of items on hand will likely be kept lower to give the public more space inside because transporting items from the other library locations is not difficult, Barr said.

Visitors to any Juneau public library have access to about 500,000 items in Juneau thanks to a partnership program the city has established with the University of Alaska, Southeast, and other libraries, and an additional 2 million items are also accessible through a new partnership with the Anchorage-area libraries at no charge to the public.

Desired items that are not available in Juneau or Anchorage can be requested and, most often, will either be purchased or borrowed by the library for the patron. The only exceptions are extremely rare books other libraries are unwilling to loan, Barr said.

For the designers, the project has been one of passion — both from supporters willing to help in any way possible with the project, and for themselves.

“I cannot tell you the sense of gratitude about being able to come give back to the place I grew up and had a fantastic childhood,” Simpson said. “It’s the best project in my 25 years of working.”

Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at Follow him on Twitter at


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