The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The East Library in Milwaukee



Every so often, you encounter a building that just astounds you with its perfection, and if you’re lucky, it’s a building you can actually spend time in (not a million-dollar penthouse, for example). The new East Library in Milwaukee—completed just months ago—is absolutely that astounding, especially when you consider that so many libraries are decades old, dreary relics. These pictures tell the East Library’s story, but I’ll add some context too.


First, a word about the neighborhood where this library is located. I wrote a profile of a nearby intersection for Urban Milwaukee, which will give you a good idea of the area, but to summarize: It is a dense, popular neighborhood filled with restaurants, bars, grocery stores and residences. Located on the East Side of Milwaukee, the area trends younger (a university is fairly nearby) but has many families and seniors too. It’s connected to several bus lines and well-used traffic arteries. It is ripe for a public library and it had one for quite some time, but that library wasn’t built to meet current needs and its dark, low-ceilings and brick walls were far from inviting.


The new East Library has truly embraced its modern role–as a place for people from all backgrounds to study, work, get help, hang out, use computers and find books. The space is constructed around a large, flexible meeting room and an open study area with computers, a fireplace, couches and tons of desk/chair configurations. There’s a corner for teens to hang out, a small conference room for meetings and homework or job search help, and a section for books.


Books are, of course, present in this library. However, they are not the focal point, and that’s okay. I pick up several books at this library every week (sometimes more than once a week) and because of the reserve/hold system, it doesn’t matter that the shelves are sparse in this location. I just reserve the books I want online and wait for them to be transferred from any library in the system over to the East Library. If the book is currently on the shelves at another library, that process usually takes just 2 or 3 days–the time it would take for a book to be delivered if you purchased it online (or faster). I get an email notification when the book has arrived and then I just head over there to pick it up. Most library systems have this process in place, so unless your ideal library visit involves extensive browsing, it’s not a big deal that this library only has a few books. That doesn’t make it any less of a library.


One of my favorite facets of the East Library is its entrance. The entrance is a gorgeous, seamless extension of the exterior facade and surrounding greenery. It invites pedestrians, wheelchair users and bikers (who can use an on-site bike rack) to enter from the surrounding streets, and the library is located on a corner for maximum visability. The Library’s small parking lot in the back also has a walkway to the other side of the main set of doors, which allows both drivers and pedestrians to enter with ease.


As you pass through the main doors, you are greeted with bulletin boards full of community postings, as well as a smooth bench at which to sit as you gather your belongings or wait for a bus. Once inside the central atrium, a large, welcoming desk with the word “Ask” on it, is occupied by a friendly library employee. The automated book return is to the left and the large classroom space is to the right.


Just past the greeting desk are automated self check-outs (which operate easily and perfectly, unlike the self check-outs at grocery stores that seem to crash every time I use them). The Hold shelf is also near the front so that people stopping by the library can easily grab their Hold items, check them out, and be on their way. Also near the front is a children’s book and play area and a librarians’ desk. Finally, there’s a kiosk from which to check out laptops for use anywhere in the library, free of charge.


The middle of the library is occupied by a selection of books from many genres, and the back half of the space opens into that large study area I mentioned already. The color scheme of the interior and exterior plays on modern metals, but also utilizes a bright, vivacious orange theme throughout. Overall, everything in the library is easy to find and use. It meets the needs of the modern reader, student, child, worker and job searcher in a manner that is accessible and inviting to people of all backgrounds.


Of note also is what lies above the library. Through a partnership with the government and local developers, an apartment complex was built above the library, offering one-, two- and three-bedroom units. Because the apartments and the library were built at the same time, there is a seamless, congruent look to the building. Going the direction of so many new apartments and condos in Milwaukee, these ones are not cheap (one bedrooms starting at $1,000+). However, the pricing indicates the rising popularity of a neighborhood like this—one with public amenities, restaurants, parks and walkability.


I’m so glad this is the library I get to go to every week. It’s a joy to spend time there and the facility is easy to use for everyone who wants to. On Monday, I’m starting a new job working remotely, so I think I’ll be spending a lot more time here in the coming months. More on that soon!


I invite you to take a moment to stop by your public library this week and pick up a book. If you’re in the Milwaukee area, you should definitely check out the East Library. It does not disappoint.

6 thoughts on “The East Library in Milwaukee

  1. It really is a pretty tremendous facility, especially given that it replaced a largely automobile-centric, single-story, single-use library.

    The financing scheme of giving developers the land for free in exchange for them delivering a gray box space for free in return is a wise trade (because the uses above the library pay property taxes and enhance the neighborhood further). Unheralded is the design changes in the library that reduce the staffing needs (single door, long sight lines, automated check-in and out facilities), those allow the city to provide longer hours and more services at a reduced cost. A win for everyone involved.

    I have one two design gripes with this building, and I’m curious of your thoughts.
    1. Aesthetically, I wish the building had the massing to the west (the corner) instead of the setback above the first-floor. Instead it places most of the massing in the middle of the block. It makes it seem less urban, and I think this dampens the walkability of the neighborhood ever so slightly (limiting the street-wall, living room effect).
    2. The signage on the library along North Ave. is difficult to see when you’re going down the street. It is parallel to the street, instead of perpendicular. If you turn the corner to the side street (where the entrance is) you’ll find a highly visible sign, but along the primary artery the signage is hard to see when you’re passing by in a car.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I figured you would have some more in-depth insights about comparisons to the old library since you were here when everything was happening. That’s helpful to know the additional advantages of the library in terms of processing books. I certainly love the long hours that the East Library is able to provide.

      Your design comments make sense to me. I think you’re right that an entrance directly on the corner would make the library seem more inviting, but I do really appreciate that the entrance is equidistant from the sidewalk and the parking lot. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need the parking lot at all and everyone would be walking/biking/bussing to the library. But as it currently stands, I think the positioning strikes a good balance between making drivers comfortable and allowing easy access for pedestrians.

      I agree about the signage. It would be easy for someone passing by to think the whole building was a shiny new condo, instead of a library open to all.

      That being said, overall this is the best public library I’ve ever been in.


      • I don’t mean the entrance to the library (it’s far from ideal, but it allows them to staff the library with one fewer person). That’s fine where it is, given all the constraints.

        I mean the upper floors of the building, they’re set back from the southwest corner of the building. This makes the building appear shorter than it actually is from the street. The mass of the building is in the middle of the block instead of the edge. I think this makes it feel less prominent and makes North Ave. feel less urban and inviting when you’re walking.

        With the exception of the Milwaukee Streetcar project, I tallied last year that I’ve written more articles about the East Library project than anything else.


  2. This looks like a great addition to the city. It appears to be only only four stories tall, so my only question would be, why wasn’t it even taller so it could include even more new housing units? Would it be too out of place for the surrounding neighborhood?

    I live in DC and am frustrated by the constraints of the height act. I think it unnecessarily decreases the potential number of housing units and makes housing prices more expensive. And less density means more carbon emissions.


    • Hey, good question. Yes, I am sure there are height constraints. But also realistically for this neighborhood, there have been tons of new developments all in the last couple years and some are still waiting to fill, so I’m guessing the developers didn’t want to build something super tall (which would have been out of characteristic for the neighborhood as it currently looks as well) and risk losing money on it. But that’s just speculation.

      I agree with you though; height constraints make little sense, especially in a place like DC.


    • Construction costs are a big factor I presume. It’s a wood frame building and would have had to be made out of a different material to make it substantially taller.

      If memory serves, it’s a few feet taller than the height limit. A zoning change would have been possible, technically, but wouldn’t have worked during the RFP process.


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