Many lives of the civic multitasker

Libraries and Learning Resource Centres

May 30, 2003

With e-knowledge available to all, is the library necessary? Where do libraries fit into education secretary Charles Clarke's concept that learning for its own sake is "a bit dodgy" and that medieval seekers after truth are an "adornment" to society?

In the early 1990s, my local library - a Victorian philanthropically founded institute - had its oak shelves and counters replaced with formica-faced furniture and adjustable shop shelving to match. The refit certainly rid the building of its "outmoded and forbidding image", yet the furniture gave no dignity to the core transactions in an otherwise-gracious room. By contrast, the brief for the National Library in Paris - one of Francois Mitterrand's grands projets - stated that the building should be neither a temple nor a supermarket; and the outcome is emphatically a national monument to the storage and transmission of knowledge.

Libraries and Learning Resource Centres is an authoritative guide for everyone working in the library world. It is is well organised, has useful diagrams and checklists and discusses the challenges confronting libraries.

The book starts with history, form and meaning in library design, then moves through planning and layout issues and technical challenges to a collection of case studies across the range of library types - national, public, university and specialist - concluding with speculations on the future.

The libraries of Ephesus and Athens were built, as Vitruvius recorded, ad communem dilectationem - for the enjoyment of all - and their civic neighbours were the museum and debating chamber. Perhaps it should be no surprise to our age that libraries need to include shops, cafés, meeting places, exhibition space, tourist information and community services and are open at least 12 hours on most days. The library, branded as "idea shop" and "street corner university", has a crucial role in our rundown towns of appealing across age, ethnic and cultural boundaries to become a potent symbol of regeneration.

University libraries pre-date public ones by several centuries, and in the UK their budget per capita is four times that of public facilities. Not surprisingly, universities are the test bed for learning styles; and the concept of a learning resource centre reflects a need for group working as well as quiet contemplation.

Brian Edwards and his co-author explain how the function/ form/meaning equation has been society's way of defining a building type and has had a predictably formal urban response. But such constructs are threatened - not just by the information-technology revolution but also by the trend to erosion of single building types. If the library is to be a cherished institution, then the duty for the designers is to eschew repetition of old and mongrel solutions and to advance the typology of the building form.

Libraries are in an experimental phase, and this can be discomforting for funders and clients. This book is essential reading and will help all parties to articulate the client brief so as to produce a vision that is not just technical but aspirational.

David Prichard is a director of MacCormac Jamieson Prichard Architects, who designed the Ruskin Archive, Jersey Archive, Lancaster University Library Extension and the Clayport Library Durham.

Libraries and Learning Resource Centres

Author - Brian Edwards with Biddy Fisher
ISBN - 0 7506 4605 5
Publisher - Architectural Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 2

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