To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the rise of smartphones and Kindles, physical book sales have recorded modest growth in Australia for the past four years running. According to Nielsen Book, which charts retail sales for the book industry, Australia saw 61 million print books sell in 2018 to a value of $1.2 billion.
In a related trend, new libraries have been popping up around Sydney at an inspiring rate. And they’re nothing like the drab, fluorescent-lit buildings of yesteryear.
Like Broadsheet, Surry Hills Library celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2019. The elegant timber-louvred facade still catches our eye whenever we’re in the area. Those louvres track the sun and automatically open and shut to control light inside the building, which contains 30,000 books and a childcare centre with a rooftop sandpit.
At the three-year-old Woollahra Library, you’ll find three airy storeys connected by large, oval-shaped voids with timber staircases thrusting downwards through them. Well-established succulents spill down the inside of each void, resulting in a calming indoor-outdoor feel. There are plenty of comfy booths and other nooks to read in.
Books aren’t the only thing Sydney’s new libraries offer, though. Following Europe’s lead, they’re also becoming community centres, studios, art galleries and architectural landmarks in their own right.
In 2018, for example, the State Library unveiled the new-look Mitchell Building after a $22 million refurbishment. On the ground floor, the Collectors’ Gallery displays more than 2000 historical curiosities, including a Cartier hairpin box owned by opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. Upstairs, the Michael Crouch Family Galleries houses more than 300 oil paintings of Sydney life, some dating back to the 1870s.
The one-year-old Green Square Library pairs a six-storey tower with a subterranean section and includes a sunken garden, a computer lab with a 3D printer, and a music room with a grand piano and recording equipment. Bright and relaxed cafe Noun is also on the premises.
Likewise, the brand-new Marrickville Library contains gardens, exhibition spaces, an 85,000-volume book collection, computers running Adobe Creative Cloud and a cafe by respected outfit Double Roasters. The $40 million construction bill was offset by a deal with residential developer Mirvac, which built 200 apartments – nine of which are set aside as affordable housing – at the rear of the site. Clever.
And in November, Darling Square Library finally opened inside the six-storey timber hurricane designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, alongside 29 cafes, restaurants and shops. In addition to 30,000 books, it has 3D printers, drills, power tools and other equipment for budding craftspeople and designers.
This story originally appeared in print issue 20.