Higher volumes

If you want to talk inside a library, you should get in on the ground floor, as Luke Evans discovers

Libraries are usually with three things: books, space, and silence. Even while freshers’ week brings in teenagers looking to toy with social tact, the library still acts as a safe haven for solitary study. But since the digital revolution, many universities have started latching on to the idea of the ‘learning space’. These open study areas embrace sound – from tapping keys to background banter, it’s all proof that people are learning. No wonder then, that most modern university libraries like to welcome students to sit, chat and collaborate down on the ground floor, while the sound dissipates between the bookshelves upstairs.

The University of Leeds have taken this approach with the layout for their new Laidlaw Library (pictured). The building will provide 1,000 new study areas, with the quiet, individual spaces nestled between the books on the second and third floors, while the first floor offers both large teaching rooms and smaller student support spaces for people to speak to staff and faculty members. On the ground level, meanwhile, are the group work areas, with a café and courtyard providing somewhere to take a break. “Naturally there will be lots of PCs and Wi-Fi throughout,” says Stella Butler, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection at Leeds. “But we are also providing cutting-edge technology to allow students to connect and share information from whatever sort of mobile device they normally use – laptops, tablets and smartphones.”

An eye for flair

Leeds have already shown an eye for flair when it comes to library design in the past: their Edward Boyle Library benefits from Brutalist walkways branching out overhead, while the Grade II listed Brotherton Library is home to a grand Beaux-Arts central study area.But Laidlaw Library, which is due to open this spring, focuses more on function than form. “The new building [will have] equal emphasis on access to core undergraduate texts (both physical and electronic), study spaces to meet a variety of needs and styles, and services which help students develop their academic skills,” says Butler.

The library is named after Irvine Laidlaw, a wealthy alumnus who recently donated £9m to the project. His donation is one of thousands given towards the University’s Making a World of Difference Campaign, which seeks to raise £60m to help with key research projects at the University while also providing support to underprivileged children looking to gain a place at the University.

Whereas Leeds already have two beautifully designed libraries to rely on, the University of Birmingham is going back to the drawing board. Back in 2009, they selected Birmingham-based group Associated Architects to do a feasibility study on improving the existing library from the 1950s, and the group came to the conclusion that it would cause too much disruption and time to refurbish the old building. Better, then, to demolish it and start over. “The building just wasn’t serving [the students’] needs,” says Diane Job, Director of Library Services at the University. “For instance, students need to be able to plug their laptops in, but an awful lot of our individual study spaces [at the old library] don’t have plug sockets. What we needed to do was to provide the kind of library that students needed going forward for the next 50 years.”

City landmark 

Associated Architects set out to ensure that the finished product would be a landmark within the city. Job highlights their outstanding work on the David Wilson Library at the University of Leicester, and their design for the £37m New Library continues in the same high-tech vein with levels and light wells that tessellate like Tetris blocks across six storeys. While the old building featured draughty corridors and staircases, the new design makes the most of space and natural light, promising Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology (BREEAM) Excellence and a 50% reduction in energy usage.

Job says accessibility and intuitive layout also played a huge part in the New Library’s design, noting that unlike in the current library, the ground level will actually sit at ground level.

“On the ground floor, as you come in, to your left will be a café, but to your right is a space … in which we can put on events, exhibitions and activities which showcase the research of the University, the collections, and all of the work that goes on here, so that we can engage with the wider community more.”

Unlike many other universities, Birmingham also had to take all of their existing print resources into account when it came to deciding the layout of the New Library. “In the lower ground floor, there’s an area that we are calling Research Annexe,” says Job. “The upper floors of the library will have the rest of the texts in the building, and that’s around 12,000 metres of material. Of course what that means is if somebody in 10, 20, 30, 40 years needs to have it, it’s there and it’s accessible to them very easily.”

At least the question of longevity has been up to Birmingham University. For the University of Greenwich, it’s simply a necessity: the design for their £80m Stockwell Street building needed to stay in harmony with the rest of the historical landmarks in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this, the completed building seems to have pleased all parties, crossing an industrial interior with a curved stone facade designed to blend in among the historic surroundings. “The narrow, fin-like windows that run along the side of the library help,” says Virginia Malone, Information Services Manager at the University’s Avery Hill and Stockwell Street campuses. “They look great as an architectural feature, but they also let the public catch glimpses of what’s actually going on inside the building.” Her colleague, Director of Information and Library Services Paul Butler, chalks up the success to great communication with Heneghan Peng, the building’s architects: “If you look over their back catalogue of projects it’s clear that they value creative expression and possess a fastidious attention to detail.”

The modern library

The building represents the evolution of the modern library – rather than simply being made up of archives or lecture halls, it combines teaching and learning spaces to form a complete campus.

As such, it acts as a home to many of the University’s collaborative disciplines, with the Department of Architecture and Landscape and the Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts now under one roof, sharing a large project space and gallery on the ground floor. Above this are 670 spaces, along with 10 bookable study rooms, while the lower floors also offer two training rooms along with 150 informal learning spaces; and whereas the University of Leeds has been focusing on interconnectivity across existing devices, Greenwich has chosen to loan their students the technology they need, with 40 iPads and 95 laptops available.

Continuing the trend seen at Birmingham and Leeds, the Stockwell Street Library progresses from social spaces to silent study in ascending levels, while a quiet study area lies hidden down in the basement. One of the greatest advantages of this layout is that it prevents noise leakage, which the University worked hard to eliminate. “We have state-of-the-art discreet baffling,” says Malone. “This is incorporated into the ceiling as a suspended system and integrated into the lighting systems. The furnishings and fairly dense shelving layouts also help reduce sound transfer. Visitors who came during the construction phase are amazed at how we have completely managed noise – we really can have a discussion group adjacent to a quiet study area without causing upset.”

The standout feature at the Stockwell Street building, however, sits up on the roof. “There are a total of 14 different roof spaces, each with its own planting and landscape types,” says Butler. “Spaces for vineyards, beehives, ponds, algaeponic and aquaponic research facilities – [all] create a living laboratory where the sustainability of new ideas in landscape and architecture can be tested and innovations developed and applied.” For this achievement, the green roof has been awarded a BREEAM Innovation credit, marking a huge leap forward for sustainable architecture in the city.

A high-tech world

Greenwich’s approach shows further adaptation towards the increasingly collaborative and high-tech world of business which students must adapt to after graduation. Both Job and Paul Butler point to this change as part of the reason for the increasing focus on learning spaces in modern libraries, while Stella Butler believes it has also shifted the focus of information services altogether. “The emphasis has definitely changed from curating books to providing a service to the University community and beyond,” she says. Over at Greenwich, meanwhile, Malone feels that the growth in technology and architecture is helping to stretch the role of the librarian these days: “If a student has questions, we must have confidence in the answers we give, so we’ve all improved our own knowledge of technology,” she says. “We’re not just custodians in a warehouse of books.”

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