With the escalation of the Internet as a global information source, you might think the days of the public library are numbered. But if you consider that not everyone is hooked up to the Web – relatively few people beyond retirement age have access, for example – and not every avid reader can afford to buy books, then there is still scope for its development in this information-driven society.
The smarter public authorities are latching on to this and developing their ‘offer’ way beyond the notion of a book or CD dispensary service. Take Hampshire County Council. Its exemplary award-winning approach to school design set its in-house architecture team apart from its peers in the 1990s. Now the council is applying its skills to libraries (see News Analysis, page 9), and we can expect great results from its input into the county’s ten new Discovery Centres.
And it isn’t just local libraries that are getting the treatment. The British Library in London led the way in terms of state-of-the-art library design a few years ago, having been decades in the construction. Now University College London is joining a long line of academic institutions as patrons of good architecture. It has commissioned high-profile architect Dixon Jones, creator of the National Portrait Gallery revamp, to design its oddly named Panopticon to house its library and other facilities.
So libraries could be the next source of lucrative design work – and it won’t just be architects who benefit. Quite apart from the usual identity, posters and signage work, libraries are increasingly clients for a host of other creative skills. The British Library has staged several exhibitions, for example, and all are likely to offer digital information services.
Then there is the social aspect. Libraries provide a cultural hub within a community, be it a public service, or a private or academic resource. And with bookshops such as Borders pioneering the in-store coffee shop concept some years ago, why shouldn’t public libraries double up as neighbourhood drop-in centres?
There are great aspects to these developments for the design community. First, there’s the feel-good factor that goes with enhancing a social service. Then there’s the fact that the public sector – responsible for many libraries – may be hard to break into, but can become a massive source of work.
Above all, library work offers the chance to make culture more accessible to people in the way the great millennium-related boom in museum work did a couple of years ago. The multidisciplinary approach this often entails encourages designers to push the boundaries – and that is always a good thing.