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Libraries must also be buildings? New library impact study.

by Jared Bryson, Bob Usherwood and Richard Proctor London, resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries 2003

The report can be downloaded from www.resource.

In the literature of public library buildings a good deal of attention has been paid in recent years to justifying the need for, or the extent of, a physical presence for the library. There was an early belief that library space could be pared back on the assumption that users would stay at home to access what they needed on the internet--the 'library in your living room' rather than the 'living room at your library' model. Nothing is ever that simple, and qualitative research of one kind or another has supported the view that libraries as a place have an increasingly significant role in the life of communities, space and other resources permitting. A safe place to go: libraries and social capital (Sydney, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney, and the State Library of New South Wales 2000 publications/pdf/safe_place.pdf) is just one local example of such recent findings.

Diversity and demand

We know that library building use has become more diverse, that demand has become more sophisticated and that user expectations have risen. This has led us to reassess space requirements and, as has been shown by another local example People places: a guide for library buildings in New South Wales (Sydney, Library Council of NSW 2000 publications/pdf/people_places.pdf) the conclusion is that libraries need not less space, but more--and space which is more varied, adaptable and responsive to changing community needs. A new generation of public library buildings is resulting, not because of architectural trends, but because of a detailed analysis of our communities and the environment in which our communities are operating. The results of such analysis are reflected in demand for space for services or facilities which are now as much part of the public library landscape as electronic and print materials: learning shops, training centres, discussion rooms and 'quiet' rooms, links or partnerships with other facilities on the same site, spaces for lifelong learning and other areas where the community can gather, often informally, to self educate, recreate, communicate or simply cogitate.


Much attention has rightly been devoted to front end planning. Those involved consult more widely than ever, assess the needs of their communities, visit other libraries, talk to colleagues and scan the literature. Once projects get under way library managers work hard to get things right, often involving client groups and their peers in the process, checking the validity of early assumptions and solutions. Then there is the adrenalin rush of the lead up to completion of construction, the euphoria of the opening and the sometimes anticlimactic experiences during the defect liability period. After that there is the opportunity--too rarely taken--for a holistic evaluation of the facility, working through problems which have emerged during the first months or years of occupancy and identifying potential improvements. This is an opportunity not only to find out if the building works as a building, but also whether it has met the objectives and aspirations which were expressed so long before, at the early planning stage. Has our belief in the library as a significant place in the community proved well founded, once the building is there? How well have we translated this belief into reality? Do they love their new library? Are we meeting community needs? Is the new library having the desired effect on the community? Answers to such questions can help us amend and adapt facilities and services in the library in question. But a broad study of a cross section of recent library projects would also provide some touchstones for library managers and architects about to embark on a new project.


The assessment of the impact of new public library buildings is precisely the subject of a recent study funded by resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries. Resource's mission is to advise the British government on policy and priorities for the library, museum and archives sector. The study report, published as Libraries must also be buildings? New library impact study, is the work of Jared Bryson, Bob Usherwood and Richard Proctor in collaboration with the Centre for Public Libraries and Information in Society (Cplis) and the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield. The mainly qualitative study 'aimed to assess the impact of a new library building on local communities, questioning the institution as a physical space and the role it plays in the wider community' (p7), with many subsidiary questions to be answered. These included the impact on users, local shops and businesses and other library services as well as the extent to which 'new library buildings can help ameliorate the breakdown in the social connections of British society'. (p7). Indeed an ambitious task.

The team reviewed the literature, conducted a nationwide email survey of all 208 library authorities and, most revealing of all, engaged in indepth studies of two recent and very different public library projects. One was the Norwich and Norfolk Millennium Library, a large central library for the city of Norwich in East Anglia and headquarters for the 48 branches and 17 mobile libraries serving the dispersed rural population of the county. The Millennium Library, which opened in 2001, shares the Forum building with a learning shop (a collaboration between local universities, colleges and career services), the 'City Elearning Station', tourist information and gift shop, pizza parlour, coffee shop, restaurant and the regional office of the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is a busy library, with around a million issues expected in the year of the survey and a million and a half visits--twice the number of visits to the old library in its final year.

The other library examined in detail was at Stratford in the London borough of Newham, one of a series of branches serving this highly urbanised locality. Opened in 2000, it is part of a shared development with a supermarket, hotel and video store. Here the growth in use has proved even more pronounced, with the number of visits expected to be three times that of the previous library.

For the case studies the team conducted focus groups and individual interviews and also examined project documentation. The key groups typically represented youth, 'elders', business leaders, people with a disability, minorities and refugees, library and local authority staff and councillors. The interview and focus group guides which were used are included in an appendix.


Five themes emerged from the information and opinions which the team absorbed during the course of the study--planning, partnerships, design, marketing and social capital. As one would have expected, they found that planning determined the strengths and weaknesses of a new public library building. Successful planning had to involve community consultation in a meaningful way 'a complex longterm, and multicomponent approach to asking, and listening to, stakeholders' (p17). It also required vision and in this regard the local authority's aspirations were important. In the case of the borough of Newham, for example, the hope was that a new library would be a catalyst to regenerate a 'dead' corner of the town centre, enhancing its 'liveability, boosting community morale and increasing the 'feel good' factor. In the case of Norfolk and Norwich the library was to be 'a tool to reshape the image of the local authority and actively engage its constituents in contemporary society' (p20).


Partnerships were identified as contributing to the success of a library building project--it is significant that both libraries examined in the case studies were parts of larger developments. In the case of Stratford the partnership had not substantially gone beyond cohabitation, but even here the benefits of shared infrastructure and 'footfall' (a good word for pedestrian traffic) was benefiting the library. In the Norfolk and Norwich case the cross fertilisation was more pronounced, resulting in sharing 'space and goals in a mutually reinforcing and complementary way' (p61). Interesting ammunition here is the comment that footfall is beneficial for both library and other occupants or partners on a site. In addition 'the quality of life factors that a library offers to a community can help to attract the type of employees wanted by area businesses' (p61). I would add that a library as part of a development can also be attractive in terms of real estate. More than one apartment development in Sydney recently has boasted that a new public library is part of the new precinct which the developer is creating.


Design is of critical importance in making 'tangible statements about the role and character of the library in the 21st century' (p62) and this is demonstrated in some accompanying photographs. These include the fine looking Bournemouth Library (which featured in the Architect's journal of 20 March 2003), Peckham Library (now iconic because of its stilts), Londonderry's Waterside Library (an old workhouse) and the Idea Stores in Tower Hamlets. Once inside the building the design element is equally important, and the influence and success of trends in retail design refreshment facilities, display techniques and layout is also discussed. So is the concept of 'the library within the library', of zones for distinct and sometimes potentially conflicting uses.

Marketing is identified as an essential element in maintaining interest once the bunting has been rolled up and the initial flurry of visitors has subsided 'sustaining high levels of use [is] not a foregone conclusion' (p62). The most successful libraries used a sustained and varied program of marketing. Some were able to piggyback onto programs of partners on the same site or within the local authority. Others used advertisements on local buses, letterbox drops, letters to ratepayers and registered library users and contacts with the local media

Social capital, 'the glue that binds a society's institutions together' (p63), is the final theme which emerged for the team. The new public library can be 'a tool for building social capital'. 'The library is at any one time,' they continue, 'a meeting place, a learning resource, and a comfortable and relaxing public space. The buildings that are well designed and managed offer an array of resources that enable people and groups to establish relationships, carry on conversations, exchange ideas and engage in the life of the mind' (p57).

The methodology

This report is extremely valuable not only for the conclusions which it draws about the impact of a new library building--hard qualitative data to back our convictions, hunches and front end planning--but also for providing an excellent methodology. Replicated or adapted to suit local circumstances, this methodology is particularly applicable to local government authorities embarking on the renewal of ageing library infrastructure or planning services for new growth areas. It will help authorities to get it right with the lucky library which is first cab off the rank. Authorities can then draw on that experience and ensure continuous improvement as they work through their other library buildings.

The authors marshal an array of ideas, comments and opinions from participants in projects, library users, observers, planning specialists and even the British prime minister and his deputy. This valuable report provides compelling evidence of the continued relevance of the library building. Libraries must also be buildings? Yes, definitely yes!

Dr David Jones

Library Building Consultant

State Library of New South Wales
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Article Details
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Author:Jones, David
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2003
Previous Article:Joint use libraries in the UK.
Next Article:'The wheel is come full circle'.

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