Reimagining library spaces

In the midst revving up for the first performance in our new short story series next week, and when outside the excited fray of the London Book Fair, I have been mulling over library spaces and their creative potential.

Happily it's National Library Week in America, and a gorgeous glut of inspirational library spaces popped up on Bookbub including images of the neoclassical gradeur of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the fabulous murals covering the modernist block that is the Central Library at National Autonomous University of Mexico which allude to phases in the country’s history, the warm, old fashioned splendour of the library in Trinity College Dublin, and the new age greenhouse pod that is the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago.

I also came across an interesting BBC Radio 4 documentary called ‘The Library Returns', from 2012. It is about the reinvention of public libraries through new architecture, which was already happening alongside the cuts to public library funding and closure of many older libraries. It features the landmark Library of Birmingham that was then in the process of being built at an unheard-of cost. These new buildings are designed to embrace the new digital environment by including areas like ‘media hubs’ where computer games and online facilities like Spotify are available. The idea is to attract audiences who wouldn’t previously have used libraries, such as young people who want to listen to music. One librarian described how entrepreneurs have asked to use their new library as their office space to meet clients and to set up a mail box there. The argument is that libraries are positively transformed from ‘temples of knowledge’ into ‘transparent buildings where you can find people like you’. That allows them to function as the contemporary version of a ‘quality public square with a roof on’, at a time when public spaces are in decline.

But what about the books? In a lot of the rhetoric about changing contemporary libraries, books are often completely left out. Surely a core function of libraries is to provide access to knowledge and to literature, and books are great for that.

Also, I for one love the look of physical books, and the aura that is created in a library space by being surrounded by long shelves of beautiful covers suggestive of the imaginative worlds inside them.

Also, if you lose the physical books on the shelves, libraries can no longer do that wonderful thing of introducing people to new ideas by fortuitously coming across a book on a shelf which they hadn’t expected.

There’s also the issue of peace and quiet, which the old ‘temple of knowledge’ idea of a library is so good for. Sitting next to an entrepreneur selling his next business idea when I’m trying to concentrate on a book and immerse myself in the language or the ideas is likely to make me want to put the book back on the shelf and walk straight out of the door. Surely by providing at some areas and times of day for reading books in peace and quiet, libraries can offer a unique encouragement to take time out of the loud, busy world and engage in new ideas.

But of course libraries can do much more than provide access to physical books, especially when public spaces are getting so few and far between. They can showcase other forms of culture, and they can provide a space for people to meet and share ideas. That’s why a lot of new libraries, like the Library of Birmingham, have been designed to contain performance spaces that can host exciting cultural events to bring more people through the door to engage in community arts activities.

Money is tight though, and not all libraries can be built as such splendid, purpose-built structures. Many of them desperately need more funding, but with the existing spaces they can still reimagine themselves as exciting cultural spaces for people as well as peaceful havens for reading. The Ark project aims to bring all kinds of libraries to life out of hours through site-responsive performances, which take place amongst the books that line the walls, feed off the aura of those books, and are inspired by the stories those books contain and the imaginative places they can lead to.

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