Something exciting is happening in the world of library design. Driven by the academic sector, libraries have become a key battleground in the fight between old and new approaches to learning.
This is a direct product of history. The first generation of library design was defined by individual learning and personal responses to source material. It was a world of dusty bookshelves, reverential silence and heads-down study.
The digital revolution disrupted this long-held paradigm. From the early 1990s, a second generation of libraries developed. Technology ruled the roost. Libraries became learning resource centres, featuring media labs and banks of computers.
In testing out the limits of digital, however, some institutions invested too much faith in the new technologies. Now a third generation of libraries is emerging, trying to reconcile the two modes.
How do you design for the third generation of libraries? Here are six pointers to consider.
1. Let the light in
Promote engagement with the environment by utilising sight lines, natural light and unexpected vistas. Creating an atrium that draws light into the centre of a library serves to illuminate the space but also as an orientation location, a place of contemplation, or a flexible study space. Combined with low-level shelving, a well-designed atrium – such as the beautiful example at University of Greifswald in Germany – can create sight lines through and beyond the building, encouraging engagement with interior and exterior landscapes.
2. Preserve and promote quiet zones
These can be sited on the upper floors of multi-floor buildings, insulated from the hustle and bustle. One of the challenges of quiet zones is how they interact with open spaces: careful auditory planning including the positioning of shelving and acoustic panels is required to ensure that sound leakage is kept to a minimum.
3. Drive engagement
Rather than seeing digital/analogue as competing issues, encourage engagement with information in all its forms. Focus on the library as athenaeum, promoting learning and how to learn. “We were clear from the outset we wanted to call our new building a library as opposed to a learning resource centre,” said Susan Scorey of University of Roehampton, whose new library opened in September 2017. “This was a very conscious choice. Some of our students arrive at university not knowing what a library is for. We are doing a lot of work around teaching our students how to learn.”
4. Build flexible spaces
An example of best practice is Coventry University library. The library utilises structural steel beams to create an open-plan floor plate with no internal load-bearing walls. This meant that when the University set about a renovation in 2015, they had complete freedom to rework the interior space to meet the changing demands of staff and students – including introducing high-density mobile shelving to maximise study space. “Students work in different ways today,” said Coventry’s Kirsty Kift. “We had to respond to that.”
5. Be open for business
Many spatial layouts in libraries were created when different ideas held sway, regulating staff work areas to back-of-house. Making staff more visible, foregrounding work areas and creating clearly signposted locations for interaction between staff and users can all help promote engagement.
6. Incorporate display
Libraries have borrowed from allied disciplines in recent years. Welcoming in functions such as content creation and heritage elements requires a new approach to space management. “We have a 175-year history at Roehampton,” said Susan Scorey. She utilised Bruynzeel glass fronted display shelving to open up its special collections. “We’re not a museum,” she said. “If we’re not using our collections, there is no point in having them.”