[The four stars are for the downtown Seattle Library as a whole, including its overall mission, programs, computer terminals, the performance of the staff, and so forth. The building I would still rate as 3 or possibly 3.5 stars].
Compared to its predecessor built ca. 1959, this is definitely a huge "practical" improvement.
And it certainly has garnered world attention for itself and architect Rem Koolhaas. In a city with a penchant (for the new--and where "history" in the minds of many of its citizens conjures up the '50's, the Monorail, early grunge-rock*, and sometimes Pioneer Square with its turn-of-the-century neo-Romanesque buildings--, this building seems to have assured a special place already in the minds of most Seattleites..
That said, it is not exactly my cup of tea, especially when compared to main branch of the San Francisco Public Library (and was approximately 3-4 times the cost per square meter), which is in a far more classical style, though contemporaneous. (Let's not even mention the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its Italian Renaissance-palazzo-inspired architecture and inner courtyard, John Sargent Singer and Puvis de Chavannes murals).
The gleaming asymmetrical glass-and-steel exterior, though nice to look at at night when it is lit up, is aesthetically disappointing--angular, lop-sided, box-like.
It also is a definite architectural break with the Carnegie libraries, whose local branches are still scattered throughout the city (Greenlake, Yesler, Queen Anne, Fremont).
Nonetheless, it is an important part of civic life in Seattle now and redresses the lack of space and the general creakiness of its predecessor.
In fact, my praise for the central role of the Seattle Public Library in bringing a sense of shared community and promoting learning is practically boundless. The downtown library provides so many different functions, practical and lofty, to the citizenry of this city.
(One wonders if the Bush administration had used 1/1,000 of the amount it has spent on the Iraq war to build libraries of this calibre across the Islamic World (such as the stunning, cutting-edge library of the legendary city--now metropolis--of Alexandria in Egypt, http://www.bibalex.org/English/index.aspx), how much safer we would be from an imminent terrorist attack on our own soil).
For instance, the purely functional Microsoft auditorium is host to a rather astonishing array of speakers and previews of opera and the like. Some of the luminaries one would expect to be on the circuit of the Seattle Arts and Lectures series (at the Nordstrom Hall at Benaroya) or at Town Hall--Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking, Slouching towards Bethlehem), for instance, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and so on.
Of course, there was a long line two hours even before Joan Didion even spoke, so it's definitely not as if you'll get in...but it's indication of the high civic/cultural/literary aspirations of the Seattle Public Library.
Elevators rather slow (and there are not enough of them), with waiting times up to 8-10 minutes! And that's with your chin pressed up against the nape of someone's neck.
The nature of the plan of the spiral stacks makes it difficult to cut across from one level to the next without following in spiral-fashion. The reading room on the 10th floor is nice and airy. And generally folks adhere to quiet conversation and concentrate on their reading. They seem to respect the library and other patrons.
The soaring, vast lobby on the 5th Avenue side, which is open, atrium-style, to the very top (10th) floor is a marvel. One gets pleasantly accustomed to the electric lime-green of the escalators and some of the walls.
The fifth floor has a phalanx of public computer terminals) as well as a group of very patient, dedicated reference librarians who address patrons' questions. For now, at least, the computers-hooked-to-the-Internet have not replaced the traditional book.
Crowds of people all the time, which shows how popular it has become, moving in all directions.
* This reminds me of a recent interview with actor Anthony Hopkins that appeared (5-13-07) in the Seattle Times, where he stated that he "sometimes wants to say to people 'Do you know anything about anything?'' A [Hollywood] director asked me, 'Did Britain fight the Germans in the Second World War?'" And "I said, 'Do you know America had a civil war?' 'Yeah, I kind of knew about that. Was that Lincoln?'"
But I doubt the downtown public library would be able to fill in gaps this large.