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Redefining the library:

eurrent trends in library design
Karen Latimer

he planning and design of library spaces is changing radically in the light of

increased expectations, developments in teaching and learning, and the
growth of electronic resources. The need for physical space in the age ofthe
virtual library has been questioned, but in recent years there has been a plethora of
bigger and better library buildings. This paper considers the drivers for change in
library building design, the importance of good communication between librarians
and architects, and the underpinning criteria for good design both ofthe building
as a whole and ofthe fixtures and fittings within. Modern Hbraries must respond to
social, pedagogical and technological changes, and librarians, in collaboration w ith
architects and institutional administrators, must design inspirational and practical
buildings fit for 21st-century use.

The daw n of the digital or electronic age, with

increasing access to e-resources rather than print,
was heralded by many as marking the end ofthe
physical library as a key building type. Certainly the
impact has been marked; ratber than resulting in the
demise of library buildings, however, the
developments in how information is delivered have
had quite a different effect. The library as social
symbol, cultural icon, place for community
interaction and celebration of learning continues to
be hugely important. If anything the profile of
libraries has been raised and the continuing need to
house collections, while at the same time providing a
supportive environment for navigating the w orld of
information available beyond the library's w alls, has
meant that library design is again a hot topic. As we
move from the collection-based libraries ofthe past
to the user-focused, service-rich libraries ofthe
future, we need to be clear about the sort of library
service we want and work with our architects to
ensure that they are aware of this new approach and
can, therefore, create the buildings needed to deliver
The purpose of this paper is to give a general

overview of current trends and developments in

library architecture in the early years ofthe 21st
century, focusing on what is changing in our
approach to designing our libraries. The factors
which are prompting the change in the w ay library
services are delivered impact on all types and sixes
of library whether they be academic, public or
special libraries and, although the focus is on new
buildings, much can apply to renovations and
reftjrbishments also. This paper will cover the main
drivers for change in our approach to library design,
the importance ofthe library brief or programme in
communicating this new approach to our architects;
it will also touch on interior spaces and all that they
contain, i

Recent library developments

The increase in electronic resources brought w ith it
dire prophecies ofthe end ofthe physical library as
a building type. Our users would want everything
to be delivered to their desktops, we were told, and
our paymasters and potential funders would be
unwilling to part with their money to refurbish
existing library spaces or to build anew. Fortunately

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the doomsavers have been proved wrong. In recent

years there has been a large number of new
buildings designed all over the world - some very
spectacular. Much has been \\ ritten about the librarv
at Alexandria designed by the Norwegian architects,
Snohetta, with its vast reading rooms cascading
down seven terraces and its disc-shaped roof
representing a vast microchip, capturing perhaps
that 'link between the legacy of Cutenberg and the
byte of the digital age' that Michael Brawne refers to
in liis introduction to Library builders.'' Built right at
the start of this century this library brought together
the printed and the electronic worlds of knowledge,
as well as regenerating the seaport area of the city
and acting as a symbol of culture and national pride.
Future Systems' national library near Prague was
another competition winner but proved too outr for
the Czechs and after much controversy was not
built. Another recent building which breaks with
convention hut has had a huge impact on the vi ay
architects and library managers look at designing
libraries, especially public libraries, is OMA and
Rcni Koolhaas's Seattle Public Library One library
which impressively manifests all that is best in
contemporary library design is Jo Coenen's public
library in Amsterdam, w hich is now very much on
the to-be-visited list for public libraries at least and
whose influence is clearly
seen in the new Cardiff
librar)'. Another cit\'
w hich has carried out an
inspirational programme
of library building and
w ould repay a visit is
Here in the United
Kingdom there are many
examples to interest and
excite us. Both Brighton
and Bournemouth are
home to award-winning
public libraries (by
Bennetts Associates and
Building Design
Partnership (P)
respectively) and BDP
AtL-x:indiia Libnuy
also had a major hand in
the new Cardiff Central
Library The recentK-opened Newcastle library is
already the recipient of many plaudits with no
doubt more to come. Mecanoo, the architects of the
Delft University Library, have recently been
appointed as arcbitects for the new Birmingham
Central Library and preliminary designs promise
great things for that project. In the university sector.

too, there have been numerous new buildings of
interest in the opening decade of the new century.
The Learning Resources Centre at Glasgow
Caledonian Universit)' aroused a lot of interest since
it creates a huzzy buzz.y atmosphere and brings all
student services together under one roof. Sheffield
University followed the American Information
Commons approach in its new library and Aberdeen
University recently appointed the architects
Schmidt Hammer & Lassen, who designed the
acclaimed extension to the Royal Library in
Denmark, the Black Diamond, to design their new
library. Queen's Universit)' Belfast has just opened
its new library, designed by American architects
Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, which
combines the traditional w ith the modern.
So libraries are still being built. Changes are
definitely afoot and the impact of tbe digital
revolution and new ways of working and learning
can be clearly seen in the designs. There is no one
perfect model and although much can be learnt from
the successes - and indeed failures - of others, each
library building must respond to the particular
needs of its own users and its own context. Those
commissioning new buildings must consider the
various trends and drivers for change when
considering the brief.

Gerald Zugniann.

Drivers for change

E-resources and ICT

ICT (information and communication technologies)

and the increasing availability of worldwide
digitised information bave undoubtedly had a major

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35/1 2010

Social networking
impact on library design and, contrary to
predictions, a largely positive one. Libraries have
Another much documented trend in library design
always been associated witb knowledge, and with
is tbe growth of the library as a tbird place. This
access to knowledge, and the fact tbat this access is
concept is perbaps most often used in the context of
now available online does not negate the need for
public libraries where tbe citizen comes to spend
guidance from skilled navigators and information
time away from bome and the w orkplace to relax,
specialists - indeed it often increases it. Tbe
learn and, but is also relevant to other types
relationship between printed and electronic
of libraries. Altbougb lending figures migbt be
resources - between tbe physical and the virtual
declining, our libraries arc still being used but in a
library - is refiected botb in the service delivered
different way. David Buri at the Glasgow Scbool of
and in tbe design of the building. In the Seattle
Art Library told me that one of bis students in a
Library the Mixing Chamber is located at the
recent user survey said that 'some of tbe best
interface between the virtual and physical
conversations I have had have been in the Library'.
collections. This area
encourages maximum
communication between
librarians and users, with skilled
support on hand and a wealtb of
information sources available.
Sucb spaces are intended to
promote use and interaction
between people, botb library
staff and library users. In many
libraries today tbe creation of
exciting social space brings
users into the physical library to
use tbe virtual resources.
Increased use of IT and eresources allows libraries to be
more flexible and the spaces
within tbem more Huid. Tbese
spaces are no longer defined by
tbe collections as in tbe past and
The Library ar Queen's University Belfast.
QUB Media Services
there is a stronger need to create
their identity' by other means.
Closely allied to tbe concept of a third place is the
emergence (or perhaps re-emergence) in recent
Technological advances
years of the caf culture in a library context. Food
and drink were until really t)uitc recently con.sidered
Our users increasingly expect 24/7 to
incompatible w itb libraries. Not so now. Learning
computers, to photocopiers and even to books and
are now running successfully in many
helpful staff. It is the need for face-to-face
institutions and are popular both with students, as
interaction tbat has changed the focus in library
eongenial places wbere imagination and creativity
layouts (and indeed in the approach to services)
can have a free rein, and w ith administrators, as the
from collection-based to user-focused, technological
financial profits can be plougbed back to cover
advances have released library staff from the more
maintenance and otber eosts. Imperial College's new
routine tasks. The automation of manual handling,
library extension bas embraced new tecbnology and
the use of sorting robots, compact shelving. RFID
provides an impressive array of options for its highly
technology and tbe emergence of extended selfcomputer-literate
student body. Students can work
issue/retum service points have all brought staff out
in tbe caf alone or in groups or move next door to
from bebind the desk; tbey bave cbanged our
library spaces to work formally or informally in a
libraries from places where the storage and display
variety of permutations. The new library at Queen's
of resources governed tbe premises to ones
University also provides a range of study spaces to
dominated by users and user facilitie.s. The concept
suit all preferences and, like otber recent libraries
of tbe roving librarian proactively belping and
such as Edinburgh University, provides botb quiet
supporting learners is gaining credence and
and more social spaces for its users.
changing tbe design of staff areas and service desks.

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35/ 2010

Libraries arc again being thought of as places of

intellectual enrichment (like art galleries and
museums, many of which are examples of
architectural masterpieces) and a subtle shift from
centres of information to centres of culture can be

The last driver for change to be considered before

moving on to the design process itself is marketing,
increasingly important in this competitive world.
Much has been spoken and written about the Google
generation - an exposition of the disadvantages and
advantages of the (oogle approach to information
retrieval is a paper in itself.- Suffice it to sa\' here that
the challenge to library services from changes in
educational approaches, changes in information
provision and the packaging of information in new
formats have led to a greater emphasis on marketing
in libraries; that too has had an impact on the design
of library buildings, now increasingly oriented to
marketing concepts. The library building itself is a
marketing tool as has been show n at Seattle,
Vancouver, Copenhagen,
Amsterdam and others.
Janine Schmidt in her
chapter in the IELA library

dominated buildings of the past to ones that arc much
more user-centred and service-rich, supporting new
patterns of learning, teaching and research. We must
market ourselves as never before. How better to do it
than by designing beautiful, functional, high-tjuality
buildings? So how do we go about it?

Communicating our ideas: the brief

Before moving on to look at the component parts of
the library building and the direct impact of the
trends noted, it is important to consider the crucial
role of the building brief or programme which is
such a vital part of any design process. Some 30 or
so years ago the architect, Faulkner Brown, listed his
ten commandments for academic librarv planning,*
and these were then updated recently by the library
director Andrew McDonald." Libraries need to be
functiijnal, adaptable, accessible, varied, interactive,
environmentally suitable, safe and secure,
conducive, efficient and the one added most recently
- the\ must have the wow/thc x/thc oomph factor!

building guidelines^ on

marketing drew examples

from airports and
supermarkets in discussing
ph\ sical layout and design
gain. Taking a marketing
approach to library design
means finding out what
your users want and giving
it to them; it means, as set
out in CABE's criteria for
excellence in the design of
public spaces."" providing a
clearly identifiable entrance
to a welcoming, accessible,
Glasgow Caledonian University Library by iiDP Dcsign.s.
David Barbour.
functional building, easily
navigable, with wellplanned circulation flows and good, comfortable
To turn this laudable checklist into a wellsocial spaces. An attractive presence by day and
designed building, library staff must communicate
night contributing positively to its environment is
their requirements to their architect. They do this
by means of the library brief This is the library's
And so the physical library is alive and well in the
statement to the architect (and often to the funders
21st century though changes are most certainly
as w ell) and should include the vision for the library
taking place. Ivresources and IC T should be seen not
which will reflect the ethos and aims of the parent
as threats but rather as giving us the opportunity to
institution and have a direct impact on the design of
bring in new users and raise our profile. The focus
the library building. Those commissioning the
for library design is changing from the big collectionbuilding need to have a clear idea what sort of

.art libraries..

library the users - including the library staff, of
course - want. The brief should also record the
general distribution of space - user, collection and
service space needs - and the detailed requirements
of each area, as well as the relationships amongst
them. Anders Dahlgren in his chapters in the IFLA
library building guidelines describes in detail how to

estimate library space needs.^ The brief is a vital

communication tool w hich should ensure that
library staff think about what the end result should
be, seeking input from their users and others (indeed
perhaps most importantly from their current nonusers) and helping them to hold firm to their vision
through thick and thin. Too often this step is
omitted to the detriment of the whole process and
the completed building.

User surveys
As mentioned above it is crucial to the success of
any library building to take users' needs into
account. Recent survevs of art students' needs
carried out at the Glasgow School of Art and at the
University of Ulster's Schf)ol of Art and Design
came up with very similar responses." Some
requirements particularly pertinent to art libraries
fornial and informal exhibition space for library
treasures and student work
varied study and seating areas
informal meeting areas with sofas and
comfortable seating
relaxing study areas, perhaps with bean bags
and casual seating
^' large tables for working with oversize books
and portfolios
group study spaces for cross-disciplinary work
with other students and colleagues such as
architects. (Art students do usually have studio
space, unlike other categories of students, but
there still seems to be a demand for group study
rooms in the library. In addition, because there
is a high level of dyslexia amongst art students,
there can be a need for spaces where supporters
can work with students.)
- social spaces for networking
quiet spaces, also very much in demand
shelving {printed resources still being important
to art and design students)
'-' low shelving
space for oversize books
^ customized shelving for DVDs, posters, etc.



provision for access to e-resources (also important

but perhaps not to quite the same extent as for
some other groups of students)
one single enquiry point (IT, library, copiers)
clear signage
24-hoLir access
good lighting
good quality design (being particularly important
perhaps for this group of students)
texture, colour, artworks
green design
the wow factor

Interior spaces create the tone the library wishes to
establish. It hardly needs to be said that entrances
should be easily identiahle and the aim should be
to create an immediate impact upon coming into a
library building. This is where users form their first
impression of the library (within 10 seconds
apparently) and where the scene is set. A poor
entrance confuses users and can create an
unfavourable view not only of the building but also
of the services contained within it. A good entrance
space should be welcoming and exciting as well as
creating the ambience encapsulated in the brief,
whether it be presenting cool high-tech
sophistication, warm and welcoming, trendy or
traditional. Whatever the mood or the message, the
entrance area should be w ell laid out and enable
easy orientation by clearly indicating the main
activity areas and key service points.

The demise of the desk is a relatively recent trend in
library design, with the issue desk no longer
dominating its surroundings and potentially
presenting a barrier between staff and user. The rise
of self-issue and return kiosks, RKID and automated
storage has reduced the need ff)r large desks. They
have been replaced in man)' instances by slim-line
variations where staff can offer quick transactions,
or by enquiry points staffed by roving librarians.
Numerous designs are available from a wide range
of designers.
More stylish and imaginative display units and
bookcases are increasingly replacing the more
industrial shelving of days past and compact
shelving, which used only to exist in closed access
basements and stores, now often forms part of the

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35/1 2010

open access collections.

Tbe greatest changes,
however, have taken p!aee in
the design and equipping of
learning spaces thanks to
w ireless networks and
zoning. Where once there
were serried ranks of seating,
with a small number of
private carrels and a very
small number of rooms
available for booking,
libraries now offer a whole
range of study spaces and
aim for more informal,
random layouts, providing
every permutation from wide
open light spaces to cosy
Cardiff Central Library by BDP Designs.
Sanna Kishcr-Paviic.
nooks. Different operational
zones are coded w ith sound
and visual clues, layout and style of furniture to
indicate silent, quiet or social areas.
A welcome trend in library design is the inclusion of
works of art in tbe building. Undoubtedly
incorporating art into the design of a modem,
indeed any, librar)- greatly enhances the interior
spaces. The Worth ing-based artist Bob Brighton
Lighting in libraries often used to be bright and
provided tbe very effective artwork on show at both
uniform throughout but it is now recognised that
Imperial College London and in Sheffield
areas of activity can be defined by varying the level
University's much-praised Information Commons.
of lighting and that localised lighting is often more
Murals and sculptures feature in recent buildings
effective and preferred. Readers, and indeed library
such as the Jubilee Library in Brighton, Cardiff
staff, like to work in natural light so seating areas are
Central and many others.
usually placed around the edges of a building and
maximum daylight penetration is sought throughout
the building.


Professional designers will tell )'ou that a welldesigned huilding should not need directional
signage, quoting the mantra that 'Too many signs is
a bad sign'. Yet many library design teams find tbat
more time is spent on this than on anything else,
loo much signage just adds confusion and spaces
can usually be defined by the use of colour, texture
and the placement of furniture. Signage is becoming
increasingl)' interactive and many new libraries are
using plasma screens, which have the advantage of
allowing flexibility and change. A recent example of
subtle and elegant but very clear signage can be
found in the new puhlic librar) in Amsterdam. And
in Cardiff Central Library clever magnetic signs tbat
can be peeled off and replaced have been used.

Libraries have, like all public buildings, a huge

emirt>nmental impact and this is increasingly taken
into account in recent buildings. In design terms this
means increased use of natural lighting and
ventilation (hence the prevalence of atria in deepplan buildings) as well as use of environmentallysound materials, good insulation, low-energy and
task ligbts and sensors.

In summar)' what trends have emerged in this first
decade ofthe 21st century? Library buildings today
must accommodate both the printed and the
electronic word; they must be welct>ming and
attractive places to visit; they must promote
interaction between people - staff and readers - and

.art libraries..

cater for all tastes: those who want to work alone or
in groups, at desks or in comfortable chairs, in
silence or surrounded by a hubbub of noise. In
many cases, and indeed this was the thinking bebind
the UK Government's Better Public Building
Initiative, the new library building should also
revitalise neighbourhoods and transform derelict
sites. What does appear to be the case is that despite
name changes in some cases, the library as a
building type is alive and well; quite how it
manifests itself is no longer obvious. Library
buildings, like libraries themselves, are undergoing
profound change and a new t\ pology is emerging.
Tbe two greatest factors driving change are
undoubtedly the move to electronic resources
accessii)le from anywhere at any time and the more
sustainable approaches to design. Funding is of
course crucial and likely to become ever more
elusive - but tben it was always so. The Roman
architect, Vitnivius. in the 1st century BC held that
the essential qualities of a good building were
utiliis, rmitas and venustas - commodity, firmness
and delight. Achieving this 2()(K) years on remains
the challenge for librarians and their architects

1. M. Brawne, Library builders (London: Academy
Editions, 1997).
2. See David Nicholas, 'The behaviour of the
research of the future,' on p. 18-21 of this issue.
3. J. Schmidt, 'Unlocking the library: library design
from a marketing perspective' in FLA library
building guidelines: developments and reflections, ed.
Karen Latimer and H. Niegaard (Munich: Saur,
2007), 55-67.
4. Commission for Architecture and the Built
Environment (CABE), Better public building
(London: DCMS, 2006).
5. H. Faulkner Brown, 'The open plan and
cxibiiy: LATUL Proceedings 11 (1979): 3-18.
6. A. McDonald, 'The top ten qualities of good
library space,' in IFLA library building guidelines:
developments and reflections, ed. Karen Latimer and
H. Niegaard (Munich: Saur, 2007), 13-29.
7. A. Dahlgren, 'A practical means of estimating
library space needs,' in IFLA library building
guidelines: developments and reflections, ed. Karen
Latimer and H. Niegaard (Munich: Saur, 2007),
8. David Buri and Marion Korshidian in
communication with the author, June 2009.


Select bibliography
Michael Dewe, Renewing our libraries: case studies in
replanning ami refurbishment (Farnham, Fngland:
Ashgate, 2009).
Brian Edwards, Libraries and learning resource centres,
2nd ed. (London: Architectural Press, 2009),
Ayub Khan, Better by design: an introduction to
planning and designing a new library building (London:
Facet, 2009). .
Karen Latimer and H. Niegaard, eds., IFLA library
building guidelines: developments and reflections
(Munich: Saur, 2007).

Designing libraries,
http ://www.designi
JISC infoNet, littp://
I earning-space-design/.

Karen Latimer
Medical & Healthcare Librarian
Queen's University of Belfast Medical Library
NI Health e?" Social Services Library
Mulhouse Building
Mulhouse Road
Belfast BT12 6DP
Northern Ireland
email: k.latimer@(

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