3 things I always ask myself about a new or refurbished library space

This blog post originally appeared on the CILIP website.

Original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28752865@N08/14276325195

Flickr cc image from Karen Roe

I read recently that the judging for the gardens entered into the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show has been modified with the aim of enabling more objective judgements to be made for the various award categories.

There seems to have been a problem previously that these judgements were based on opinions so, as you might expect, a system has been devised that awards points to each of 9 criteria resulting in a number that then determines the award.

Sound familiar? – It’s what we always do when faced with something that involves complexity – supposedly making it objective by turning the judgements into a number. We seem to think that numbers mean more than words and that turning our subjective opinions into ‘objective’ numbers is a way of making the judgement transparent. But great gardens are an act of creativity that exist to provide an experience – as one eminent critic said about the new system ‘where is the love and passion in the judgement?”

Like libraries, gardens fundamentally affect us emotionally and any assessment of their worth has inevitably to be about how they make us feel.

Whenever I visit a new or refurbished library I am inevitably asked what I think about it – I never give a simple numerical score. There are 3 perspectives that I usually base my comments on.

What does the building say to me? 

Original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22490717@N02/4184694331

Flickr cc image from Dennis Jarvis

The first is prompted by John Ruskin, one of the founding fathers of the Arts and Crafts movement, who is reputed to have said that buildings should not just shelter us but that they should also speak to us. I think this is a powerful idea that can help us to understand a library space.

Asking ourselves what the space says to us and whether there is a clear message, multiple messages, confused messages or none at all is a useful starting point for developing an overall assessment of it.

It is also a useful way for library managers to think about their spaces – what are they intended to say to those that use the library? What we are trying to say with library space reflects our expectations about the way it will be used. It forms the heart of the vision and purpose for the library and provides a baseline to assess, through conversations with our users, whether we are being heard and understood and whether and how space should be modified over time.

Original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37804979@N00/10575317565

Flickr cc image from Tony Hisgett

Spaces speak to those that use them through environmental factors that give psychological cues such as layout, colour and graphics. In the Saltire Centre we used such cues to make it clear which spaces were for engaging in active group work and which were for solitary quiet study for example. The Library of Birmingham, through its use of colour in particular, speaks of the industrial heritage of the city and the entrance to the recently refurbished Liverpool Central Library has the feel of an ocean liner linking it to the city’s shipbuilding past. Is it a place of learning?

Is it a place of learning?

In Better Library and Learning Space I point out that libraries, all libraries, have always been about learning and that this role is of increasing importance in a world where learning is bursting out of classrooms and becoming a lifelong, web-supported activity.

Original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/99116610@N04/11050441386

Flickr cc image from jwltr freiburg

Libraries have an increasingly important role to play as part of the national learning infrastructure. So, secondly, I think about how a space performs as a place of learning. Does it acknowledge the wide variety of forms of learning, the diversity of needs, and the individuality of learners? Does it have the flexibility to change what it provides over time? Does it recognise the embedded nature of technology in learning and allow for its development? Above all is the space designed for learning in all its rich variety?

I think for many libraries this means making use of the architecture that already exists to ensure that the best learning environments can be created. Good examples include the local and family history room at Leeds Central Library that encourages a collaborative exploration of the past, the Mini Theatre at City University Hong Kong and the Li Yuan library in China, which is a library as a place for contemplation.

Does it contribute to its community?

Original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/26204872@N08/8151390771

Flickr cc image from San Jose Library

Thirdly, and this really is why a tick box numerical assessment of library space is of little use, how does it respond to the hope, needs and aspirations of the communities it serves? For although there is a consensus on current trends in aspects of design and configuration, what really matters is how a space interprets these trends in the context of its locality.

The way in which the space of the library contributes to its community, its ‘local fit’, shows how it is responding to its locality. The Hive at Worcester shows how important ‘local fit’ can be in the success of a library through its integration of services that meet the needs of both the University and the public. In Australia, the vast distances that libraries serve has led to radically different solutions, such as Indigenous Knowledge Centres like the one on Palm Island and the library at Mount Gambier, which focuses on being a place of social gathering and interaction.

These local interpretations of international trends make every library unique, and provide an endless variety of species in the library ecosystem. Developing rich descriptions of the libraries that we have, based on what they say to us, how they support learning and develop their communities, enables us all to learn and develop better library and learning space into the future.

What do you think makes for good library design? What are your favourite examples of good library design? Let us know in the comments.

Les Watson is a library and learning consultant who previously spent 35 years working in education as a teacher, lecturer, Head of IT Services, Dean of Learning and Information Services and Pro Vice Chancellor. His book Better Library and Learning Space: Projects, trends and ideas was published in October 2013 and has now also been released as an e-book available here.

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