James Campbell writes in Cambridge Alumni Magazine that the major problem in library design has always been light.

16th century library at Zutphen

16th century library at Zutphen

In a medieval library the books would be chained to a low lectern, aligned near small windows (glass was expensive) and the reader would just sit down in front of the volume he wanted, and then go home when the sun went down, since any open flame was a glaring invitation to fate to burn down the library and all its books. To get a reader’s card at the Bodleian in Oxford, you used to have to swear you would “never kindle a naked flame”. In the middle of the 19th century gas lighting was introduced in libraries, but it became linked with accelerated decay of books. As early as 1879 the British Museum had installed eight arc lamps in the first experiment in electric lighting in libraries — before the invention of the incandescent light bulb the following year.

This New Republic article provides a survey of recent library design. Open aspect and clean lines seem to be favored as a means of attracting the public to check out a book. Going to extremes The San Antonio Express-News reported in January on the opening of Bexar County’s bookless library.

Would More People Use the Public Library if It Had a Water Slide? was the headline for an Atlantic Cities piece by John Metcalfe, in which he used the results of a survey conducted in 2010 by Poland’s National Library to determine the reading habits of the Polish citizenry (56% had not read a book in the past year; 46% had not read anything longer than three pages in the previous month) to ask if it might be ‘the library’s fault for not attracting these individuals, what with its classically stodgy, hermetic-cage-for-learning design.’

Specifically, Metcalfe showcased the theories of Polish architect Hugon Kowalski, who ‘conceived of a new kind of library that he hopes will one day be built in Mosina, a town just south of Poznań. On its first floor, it’s all bibliotheca . . . But then it gets weird: In the middle of the library is a glass column full of water and flailing human bodies. Go up one level and you’re suddenly in the middle of a vast swimming facility, complete with a snaking water slide that takes whooping swimmers on a ride inside and outside of the building.’ Several renderings of the ‘poolbrary’ from Kowalski’s portfolio were also featured.

On the other hand, St Louis Central Library’s redesign just won an AIA Institute Honor Award covered in this DeZeen post. This video shows much of the beautiful building.

Shelf Awareness has just brought notification of Fodor’s “World’s Most Stunning Libraries” site. Click here to visit. And now Publishing Cambridge brings us a link to a Guardian photo gallery (strangely also entitled ‘Stunning Libraries’). Note that below the picture gallery there’s a link to “A sneak preview inside the restored Manchester Central Library”.

IMG_0060Here’s Seattle Public Library which was referred to in the New Republic article above — reminds me a bit of the History Faculty Library in Cambridge which was built mainly of glass in the sixties. Whenever the sun shone it became completely boiling hot and uninhabitable. In those days air conditioning hadn’t reached that side of the Atlantic. Of course neither Cambridge nor Seattle suffers perhaps from excessive sun, imagesbut I’m sure Seattle’s Koolhass and Prince  building is air-conditioned, eating up a nice slice of the library’s annual budget. It’s certainly an improvement on the brutalist version it replaced though

What should a library look like? I can’t help thinking that the old Carnegie-style libraries were “right” — but then I tend to think of libraries as depositories for books, not as information centers, as so many of their customers now do. Maybe accessibility in appearance is an absolute good, though I do think that the walls of book spines favored by the libraries at Cardiff and Kansas City look plain silly.

Here’s a picture of my idea of what a library should look like!

Galashiels Public Library

Galashiels Public Library