City of Perth Library, Winner of Inaugural ALIA Library Design Awards Public Library

Love Library Buildings : It‘s’ a Design Thing

On Monday 19th June the Australian Library Design Awards were announced. As per the Australian Library Information Association (ALIA) website: These awards were created to showcase the best in contemporary library interiors and exteriors in Australia, and to celebrate the investment in libraries made by our nation’s institutions, corporations, local, state and territory governments.

The City of Perth Public Library (pictured) won the Public Library award over the favorite the City of Geelong Public Library, which won the people’s choice award. I was not lucky enough to attend the award ceremony and Library Design conference but did follow along with the tweets — thank you to all the tweeters who share their thoughts and key light bulb moments.

I have a long and avid interest in Public Library buildings and design and in Australia we have been very lucky to have Christine McKenzie, now President-elect for International Federation Library Associations (IFLA), who has organised five Great Public Library Tours since 2008. I have been able to organise my life and work to travel on three of the tours and have definitely booked myself on my fourth in 2017. Look out Poland, Germany, Denmark and the UK here I come.

2017 Great Public Library Tour

Our first tour, with 20 other committed librarians, we met innovative library managers and library staff from Singapore, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Hong Kong over 21 days of travel. It was a whirlwind of a tour and included attending the Next Library conference in Denmark. Seeing the newly opened City Library in Amsterdam was a highlight for me and hearing from the Library Manager on the design principles, the vision they had embodied in a beautiful civic building that served the population of Amsterdam was inspiring. This was a 7 floor building with each floor for a designated audience and incorporated a restaurant and auditorium and a spacious children’s floor. What struck me most about this library was ‘Choice’. Every visitor could choose an different experience — a play area, a technology area, a dining option and a quiet study option depending on their need.

Amsterdam Central Library, Amsterdam

My second tour combined the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Lyon, France — and I must go back as Lyon was a beautiful city. We toured France and the UK seeing many new and innovative library buildings. The Birmingham Library was an amazing building and I have watched with some dismay the funding problems that have been a part of Birmingham Library’s journey since it was built to great acclaim. But the highlight for me on this journey was of course The Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Bodleian Library, Oxford England

And who could not be astounded at the Art Deco architecture embedded in the beautiful Carnegie Library in Reims France. I was in rapture there.

Carnegie Library, Reims France

My third tour also combined the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Columbus, Ohio and then we toured 4 provinces of Canada going from one side of the country to the other. The new Halifax Library was also inspiring to see and the group was in awe of the committed community consultation that went into the design of the new Central Library. This library had truly incorporated community input into the design and this generated a depth of pride in the library that reached across all levels of the community. So much so that waitresses were telling us, as tourists, that we must visit the library, and that they loved it. Though I did fall in love with the Toronto Reference Library originally built in the 1970s and refurbished beautifully by the son of the original architect.

From all these tours, talking with architects and library managers around the world there are some key elements that were also clear at the Library Design Conference in Melbourne that are lasting truths.

  1. Civic Buildings are there for the long haul and need to make a lasting statement of design. This wonderful quote from the 1936 book The Library of the Future by B.M. Headicar which I am currently enjoying remains true today. ‘The first thing one has to realize is that co-operation of the architect with the librarian becomes more than ever essential if the library is to attract all classes and all standards of readers’ pp 103
  2. Flexibility is important but a WOW factor is also one way to demonstrate that this library is different to the one it replaces. A new Public Library is an investment for a City and to realise a return on this investment is to ensure it is an attractor for the City. And it is also about community pride and that WOW factor is often really cool!

3. Choice is key — there needs to be many different spaces for different uses in a library. Yes, they are noisy making spaces now but we still need the quiet study places as well. I have also been an admirer of New Zealand Libraries which often incorporate a ‘Peaceful Place’ in the design. A room that is for silent study, silent reading and makes no apology for saying No to mobile phones.

4. Involve the community from the beginning. New Public Libraries do not come into existence quickly. There is usually a ten year planning phase as funds are looked for. There is a lot of time to gain community ownership and really have the conversation. After all it is their taxes that are paying for it.

Some of the key learning from my past Public Library tours have also come from the company of librarians from many different libraries across the nation. It is a great professional development activity and worth doing at least once in your professional life.



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Jane Cowell

Jane Cowell

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics