The changing nature of Libraries in the Digital Age by Alex Solk

10th March 2016

The role of the library has changed dramatically over the years, with libraries becoming less about books and more about accessing information. Can the traditional library retain its significance within a community building of the 21st century?

My view is that the main role of the library is to provide access to information and services whilst encouraging the sharing of knowledge. It doesn’t matter what that information is; whether it is book collections, digital material or interactive media.

Designing a modern library is about understanding what will be accessed and how that will be achieved. What are people using their library for? You might go into a library to get help using a computer, take part in a community initiative, access the e-journals or borrow a book. Motivations will vary greatly between public and academic libraries, from institution-to-institution and be influenced by the availability of other local resources.

In recent builds and refurbishments libraries have become more of a ‘hub’. Public campus services such as IT helpdesks, traditional books, training, software resources and multimedia resources are typical features of a modern library. All of this shifts the balance away from printed material being the primary function for a visitor.

Aligning with the move from providing primarily printed books to other services, the design of space needs to move on from providing space for silent individual reading/study to areas that support the wide range of activities now on offer.

Our work looking at developments in library design has categorised space requirements into four types: individual and group spaces, formal and informal settings. Beyond this you have to design space, whether that be a desk, a sofa or group study room suited to the resources being provided, the demographic of ‘customers’ and the nature of the institution.

I controversially mentioned, above, the term ‘hub’, perhaps as something that more accurately describes the co-located nature of services provided in libraries. Through our experience however we’ve found resistance to such a term, with a romantic attachment to the word ‘library’ being as strong as the affection for the printed material contained within it (however little of it may be used). To get over this, the design of the modern library has to reflect the nature of the institution. In an academic library, is that a traditional research focussed University whose brand is about scholarly achievement? Or perhaps an innovative younger institution operating without traditional constraints? Looking at public libraries, Birmingham City Council has recently constructed a new facility offering a range of services, including access to print collections. The council unashamedly called it a library (despite its contemporary appearance), yet at Worcester, a recently completed project provides broadly the same services as Birmingham, but is called ‘The Hive’.

The University of Hull were a visionary client to work with. Their project brief was to understand recent developments in the library sector, learn lessons from those projects, and deliver a library building that wrote the next chapter in academic library design. The brief recognised a demographic wider than just students; designating the library’s space for the use of academics and the community (during the day, not just at evenings and weekends).

The £28m transformation is now complete. The 16,000 sq m project involved the complete refurbishment of the library’s two buildings – the 1956 original Art Deco building, and the eight-storey Brutalist building that was added in the 1960s – with a newly formed central atrium space improving the connectivity between the two.

To begin the design process we really needed to understand how the existing library operated and get feedback from users on their experience. This audit demonstrated how the space impeded users’ ability to work, interactions between staff and users, the ability of staff to work effectively and efficiently and how the space fostered inconsiderate behavior. It also highlighted interesting information relating to access, with a large number of humanities students attending the library as their reference material was generally printed literature. Fewer science students attended the building, however, as science literature tends to be faster paced and accordingly digital. One of the important challenges we had to address was how to make the space appeal to a wider audience, including science students.

Moving forward we worked with a range of pre-identified potential user groups (existing users and new user groups we hoped to attract) to map their typical day and how the new library would play a part in it. This identified the range of activities undertaken and how the library would need to respond by providing a range of spaces to suit these activities.

Another new use for the building was to provide access to a wider community of users, not just those studying. The project brief expanded to incorporate the University Gallery as well as the new concept of an exhibition hall. The idea of both of these spaces, along with unrestricted access to the building, was to encourage as many people as possible to visit, as often as possible, to make the building a true heart for the campus and the community.

To achieve the ‘heart’ status that we were aiming for, the ground floor has been designed to be a publicly accessible, permeable space. The security barriers – usually positioned by the entrance of libraries – have been moved to the core, creating a 2,500 sq m welcome space for students, staff and the public. The ground floor space – like most other areas of the building – has been stripped back to its concrete frame and totally remodeled. This gave the opportunity to restructure the floorplate and introduce a new four-storey atrium at the heart of the project which allows for better connectivity between the two buildings.

The design for the tower of the building provides a replicated floor plate where all amenities are available to all users on all floors, encouraging them to use the right setting for their task, and move from space to space throughout the day.

In total we have provided a range of 36 different types of settings in which to carry out research, access information and collaborate. Repeated across the building this provides 2,000 spaces in total.

The topmost floor is one of the highest in the city. It houses the observatory, which frames views across Hull while providing an informal, flexible and interactive working environment, with technology available for student collaboration. The students can move and arrange the available resources to best meet learning needs. The observatory also holds the University’s special collection of rare reading materials housed in a glass temperature and humidity controlled box, with display and dedicated reading space.

We had many conversations while developing the Brynmor Jones Library design about how the library could be adapted to meet future needs. Digital protagonists said books are dead, why do you need a physical space when you can access digital information from your bedroom?

This project and others have shown that books aren’t going anywhere. They may be space hungry but everyone loves them and they are part of the identity of any library. Our design for Brynmor Jones has a 30-year lifespan. It is designed to accommodate today’s books and digital resources, with the heating, cooling, power and data infrastructure capacity to support further internal adaptations without undermining the core features of the building of accessibility, multiple modes of study, appeal to a wide user base etc.

The reality is that we can’t future gaze. My view is that it is important to bring people together; learning is a social activity. The modern library has adapted healthily to today’s modes of learning and accessing information. It will react again to future needs and remain at the heart of communities for many years to come.

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