undefinedPulse, Museum of London

A space that is more than a building

The 21st century library provides a service which embraces the idea that neither the walls of the building, nor its physical contents, should define or constrain its services.  

Place or platform? questioned the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group Future library explored” in 2017. The future, in a widely used phrase, is ‘the connection, not the collection’. The implications for libraries and library buildings are significant. Not least of these is what we mean by ‘digital’ libraries, both in terms of collections and the connections users make with each other, and how they access services. In her article Digital library spaces Kate Lomax of Artefacto examines the realities of the modern hybrid library where users interact both outside and inside the library’s spaces.

Here are some examples that reflect different aspects of libraries’ renegotiation of the spaces inside and outside of their physical walls and of the virtual spaces their services encompass.

The Word explores the interior/exterior/digital boundaries via its location, its glass frontage and its extensive digital and interactive media facilities. De Krook Library is a building that ‘spills over into the surrounding area, entering into a  dialogue with it. The exterior and interior merge to form a single unit.’ At the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland, the library community boundaries are primarily within the one building, but with 85% of interaction with the library service online, the library pervades that building and all its research and teaching activities. And a growing interest in pop-up libraries provides opportunities to shift the library space from one location to another, both promoting a library’s wider services and the digital offer, and acting as a centre of discovery in its own right.

The challenge of refurbishments

Not all new libraries and new library concepts are new buildings. Working within the constraints of an existing building can be challenging, but with imaginative planning can deliver striking and successful results. Here are a few selected from the wide range of news stories and case studies on this site.

A case study of Denny Library, Falkirk, demonstrates that ‘libraries are no longer just about books, and we believe that we have created a dynamic environment for leisure and learning relevant for the digital age.’ (Lesley O’Hare, Culture and Libraries Manager). For the redevelopment of a heritage building, the refurbishment of the very first Carnegie library, Dunfermline justifies its several awards. The Victorian building that houses the newly refurbished Queen’s Hall library and arts centre in Hexham shows what can be done to bring together a wide range of cultural and council services. Finland is proud of its heritage library architecture. Aalto University Harald Herlin Learning Centre, Otaniemi, won the 2017 Finlandia Prize for Architecture, successfully "introducing new types of learning into the building while respecting Aalto’s architecture."

The greening of libraries

When Designing Libraries started, library design which incorporated energy saving measures was the exception. Now green and sustainable library design is essential to every project.

IFLA has inaugurated an annual Green Library Award, won in 2017 by Stadtsbibliothek Bad Oldesloe Library. This award winning library’s three year project, ‘Harvest your City’, has a commitment to a  green and sustainable library, including gardening projects, provision of makerspaces and community building efforts. 2018 sees the first International Green Libraries Conference: Let’s Go Green, which is being held in Zagreb.

The Hive was designed with many features to minimise energy use across its lifetime and a powerful building management system to regulate them. Colliers Wood has solar panels and a green sedum roof. For users  there are electric car recharging points and bicycle parking. Fleet has seen improvements in the library’s energy footprint, including the provision of low energy lighting and automatic taps.

A space for everyone

Many of the references in this and the previous article illustrate how new services, new demands and new opportunities are reshaping library spaces and public perceptions of the library as a space for all. Inclusive design is as much a consideration for sustaining universal access as the design for sustainable buildings is for their long term environmental impact. Merton is a good example of a service-wide commitment to community engagement and dementia-friendly services in particular. Great Sankey Neighbourhood Hub, Warrington, is believed to be the first fully integrated, dementia- friendly wellbeing building and public library in the UK. The University for the Creative Arts is a good example of a commitment to high levels of provision and support for students with disabilities. 

A space for children and young people

Just as we have all grown up with a particular type of library, the child’s experience of a ‘modern’ library will influence its perceptions through a lifetime of choices. Good children’s library design is not hard to find, and is fortunately one of the areas in which we generally succeed very well. Trends in library design for young people can be explored in highlights from some of Designing Libraries news stories brought together in Spaces for kids.

The Word exemplifies what can be done with more open and flexible spaces that can accommodate immersive story times, robotics and maker spaces, and interactive exhibitions. The new children’s library in Shanghai is like a giant toy you can lose yourself in. But perhaps the most revolutionary example of a dedicated library for young people is Biblo Tøyen: a library just for kids, a fun space, and a slightly chaotic space. Will this be the shape of things to come?

Final thoughts

The original and continuing vision for Designing Libraries can be summarised as facilitating the discovery of inspiring examples of library design and disseminating them. Those examples also illustrate just how thoughtful and imaginative design is helping take libraries into new continents of discovery and creativity. As spaces and the services offered both inside and outside the building change, the roles of staff are changing too. People are more important than buildings, and people include staff. As Laura Worsfold of The Hive has said, "the staff  are exemplary and without them The Hive would be just another very impressive piece of architecture."

Alan Clark is a member of the Designing Libraries Advisory Group