Remember studying in libraries at school? Lessons were dedicating to learning how to navigate their vast archives, catalogues and stacks of information. Since leaving school, though, how much time do you spend in these places? Obviously the internet has left us with endless information at our fingertips, but do libraries still serve us a purpose today? How? Why? When we look at them on a surface, their relevance seems questionable. But following recent events, it seems this is actually not the case.
In August, the Craigieburn Library in Hume, Victoria was named public library of the year following a global competition run by the Danish Agency for Culture. The library was designed by the same firm – Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp – responsible for Sydney’s Surry Hills Library and Community Centre, which itself has scooped a bounty of prizes since opening five years ago.
The ground-to-ceiling glass walls of the Surry Hills space provide more than just a foundation from which to win numerous architectural awards. With a stretch of the imagination, it could be a metaphor for the modern-day library and all that it seeks to be: transparent and accessible, but also reflective of its surrounds.
When the Sydney Free Public Library (later the State Library of NSW) opened its doors in 1869 with 20,000 volumes, few books would have been available to the public otherwise: a stark contrast to an era in which all the information we need (and don’t need) is at our fingertips. However, in 2014 we find ourselves lacking something our 19th-century counterparts would have enjoyed in abundance: space.
“In the city, space is really expensive and hard to come by,” says Jeffrey Cruz, who manages the library network of the City of Sydney. “We have this space and so we want people to be able to use it as another resource,” a place for social congregation, and as a canvas for artists to use.
The City of Sydney’s plans for a new library and plaza in Green Square show an appreciation of the increasingly social nature of libraries. Set to be complete in 2017, the design by Sydney’s Stewart Hollenstein in association with Colin Stewart Architects will form the heart of a new town centre, as part of an $8 billion urban development, attracting locals and visitors to its so-called “open community living room”. Already, the design process has incorporated the public’s thoughts on how – be it for indoors or outdoors, day or night – they would best like to use the space. The key, says Cruz, is building in flexibility. “In 2020,” for instance, “we could completely change it based on the needs of the community.”
“Interesting things are happening with libraries now,” says Anthony Donovan, creative director of Frost* Collective, which led the State Library of NSW’s major identity rebrand in 2010. He references the “inside and outside” boundary blurring of the Surry Hills library which leaves it seeming more like a well-conceived retail space, and how the plans for Green Square, “will make libraries important and relevant for people,” by placing them firmly in their sightlines.
Frost embraced the challenge to shift perception of what a library is and the role it will play into the future, with Donovan admitting that, before the project, he had turned his back on the library, “because of the internet. I thought of the library as a place for hardcore researchers and academics, that it had lost its relevance,” he says; a notion shared by many, as the agency’s research revealed.
Frost responded by creating a visual identity that, aesthetically and tonally, set to align the State Library of NSW with global cultural institutions such as the MCA, MoMA and the Tate; accessible and inviting buildings that serve not only as art galleries, but as places you might meet a friend casually for coffee and a stroll, or indulge in some people-watching with a weekend newspaper.
The City of Sydney Library is working for similar outcomes across its nine branches, including those at Customs House, Glebe, Newtown, Surry Hills and Haymarket. Through keying into their immediate surrounds, each branch is active in encouraging their distinct local communities – especially the artistic contingent – to discover and engage with the resources they contain. “We run a monthly architectural talk at Surry Hills [Library] because it won several awards as an architectural building,” says Cruz. “But then if you go to Glebe, a residential community and very musical, they absolutely love anything to do with music; whether that’s scores, tonnes of DVDs and CDs or performance.”
“The fundamental reason that a library exists is purchasing expensive resources and making them freely available to a community,” Cruz says. Historically-speaking, books were expensive, but contemporary resources encompass training in social media and software programs such as Adobe InDesign, higher-end technology such as 3D printers and scanners and space; the most valuable of commodities in urban living. “We want to get creatives into the library to see what they can do with our collections and spaces, what they can do to be part of this particular community,” says Cruz.
Late Night Library is an example of this invitation, a series of adult-only talks, workshops, film screenings and performance, which – from comedy in Newtown to jazz in Glebe – Lord Mayor Clover Moore describes as part of the council’s efforts to create a diverse and vibrant city at night, frequently playing to packed audiences.
While Cruz agrees that libraries are changing in this sense, he points out they always have been. “They don’t have to constantly reinvent themselves, they just have to be constantly on the pulse of what the community needs and wants,” he says. “So I think that the original focus of the library is still there, it’s just the actual services and resources that we provide change.”
Through forward-thinking, flexible architecture and crystal-clear wayfinding, this in-tune response is physically opening up libraries to the public, dispelling out-dated notions of hermetically sealed buildings. But for creatives such as Lindsay, it also opens up reams of opportunity: “It’s like giving us a playing field,” she says.
To see all forthcoming Late Night Library events and reserve free tickets visit Eventbrite to reserve free tickets and for information on all events in the series.