Insights — 28 May 2023
by Nick Leech
Walk into the great public libraries built recently in forward-looking cities around the globe and you’ll find places that are, in structure and in outlook, openminded, adaptable and inclusive. They welcome locals and tourists, young and old, the entrepreneurial and the merely curious. And these public libraries are public.
Unabashedly no charge, no barriers, talk loud, bring food, give the teenagers some space, let the kids run around, behave-like-a-human-and-you-can-stay-as-long-asyou-like public space.
“Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest,” said Texan Lady Bird Johnson, whose words are immortalized in Austin’s Central Library. The library is that rare place where money doesn’t earn privilege, a place where strange and wonderful things can happen—and often do.
In the months since the Calgary Central Library opened, Sarah Meilleur, director of service delivery, says she’s seen many of those wonderful things, including a flash mob that formed to breeze through a tune faster than you can read an author bio, enveloping everyone into their kookily cheery ecosystem. She’s seen fellow citizens getting roped into a swing-dancing class on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Passing through the library on a Tuesday, she’s run into the swearing-in ceremony for Calgary’s new chief of police, out there in front of everybody, a city first.
“The community is coming to us with ideas. Groups see other groups doing something, and they’re inspired,” she says.
And not only inspired, but enabled.
A Calgary card holder can reserve all 30 bookable rooms in the Central Library for free, some on the same day. “The community has the freedom to decide,” she says. And they do: the Persian book club is a regular. The Calgary Ultimate frisbee board held a meeting. “We get such a mashup,” Meilleur says. “My hope is that it builds empathy.”
It certainly builds visitorship. The Calgary Central Library has welcomed 1.7 million people in the past year, more than the entire population of the city. Six hundred and fifty thousand books and digital entities have been checked out. Not bad in this age of public wifi and “snackable content.”
Calgary is just the latest city to fall in love with its new library—the institutions are hot worldwide, from Helsinki to Qatar to Tianjin, and they both share important traits and feature unique differentiators that set them apart from the past.
Currently under construction in Oslo is Deichman Bjørvika, a dynamic library that “will be a testament to how highly our city values knowledge, enlightenment and community,” says Knut Skansen, director of Deichman Oslo Public Library. Deichman Bjørvika values accessibility and views, too—the library’s proximity to Oslo Central Station puts it next door to the 50 million people who pass through the station every year, making the library a landmark that’s also a waiting room for commuters, and the top floors offer views of the Oslo Fjord and the city’s Opera House. When it opens in 2020, it’ll be home to a time capsule of local writing, a maker space, a movie theater and a gaming room designed to attract young people. All that while emitting 50% fewer greenhouse gases compared to current regulations and practices.
Then there is Tianjin Binhai Library, set in its namesake port city in northeastern China. Part of a larger master plan to provide a cultural center for the merger of the three districts of Tianjin, the library is a dazzlingly white structure that draws tourists, locals and Instagrammers from across the globe. Some 10,000 people a day reportedly lined up to enter when the library opened in 2017. Designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, the building is impressive enough on the outside: a light, spartan translucent box obscuring its contents just enough to coax curiosity. But the visual candy lies inside, where an enormous luminous sphere in the center of the space houses a full-sized auditorium and, around it, bookcases (real and painted) that cascade from floor to ceiling. On any given day, the library is aflutter with tourists and locals who chill out in reading rooms, participate in workshops in the learning spaces, and pose for photos, of course.
As libraries seek to balance analog and digital for the next century, they’ve built in flexible, playful and useful spaces. The new Hunters Point Library is another great example. There weren’t any starchitects involved in the design, but this new library in Queens offers priceless views of Manhattan and a parkland location that’s easily accessible on the city’s new ferry system. There’s also furniture by Charles Eames and Jean Prouvé, an art installation by Julianne Swartz, an environmental education center and, because this is New York, a political overtone. Jimmy Van Bramer, local council member and chair of New York City Council’s cultural affairs and libraries committee, told the Guardian that “libraries are more important than ever under Donald Trump, who is assaulting our sense of decency and who has sought to dismantle the civic space and stability as we know it.” He’s referring to the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts, which would close the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the government agency that gives grants to libraries and museums.
Hunters Point Library is a poignant reminder that such institutions are among the last truly public places on an increasingly private planet, a safe space, a there that’s there for all. A must-have for the city of the future. And the city of today.
In Doha, a futuristic-looking city being built from the desert sands, Dutch architecture firm OMA completed its Qatar National Library, which houses several collections of the country’s most important texts and manuscripts on Arab-Islamic civilization. Opened in 2018, the library was created to be nothing less than “one of the world’s preeminent centers of learning, research and culture; a guardian of the region’s heritage; and an institution that promotes imagination, discovery and the nourishment of the human spirit.”
Inside the 452-foot-long library, display shelves stretch out across terraces in every angle. “We designed the space so you can see all the books in a panorama,” says OMA co-founder Rem Koolhaas. “You emerge immediately surrounded by literally every book—all physically present, visible and accessible, without any particular effort. The interior is so large it’s on an almost urban scale: it could contain an entire population, and also an entire population of books.”
Indeed, the space offers more than a million books, an ambitious programming schedule that includes monthly performances by the national philharmonic orchestra, and a 72-foot glass ceiling, the better to let in the light of learning. Symbolism is built into several attractions, including a heritage library constructed like an excavation site to demonstrate that “heritage is the root of the nation, the root of the land,” Sohair Wastawy, the library’s executive director, told the New York Times.
While not exactly a library, the Museum of Literature Ireland—MoLI for short—is something more than a museum as well. Inspired by native son and planetary icon James Joyce and named for Molly, his best-known female character, the museum is a new landmark cultural institution in spectacular historic houses where some of the country’s best writers studied. Along with the expected artifacts, including copy number one of Ulysses and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ reconstructed bedroom, is a “digital broadcasting studio, recording interviews, readings, discussions and events with writers, poets, artists, performers, educators and academics from Ireland and abroad.” Radio MoLI, an in-house station, broadcasts 24 hours a day across the world from radio.moli.ie. “This is a living, breathing thing,” Simon O’Connor, the museum’s director, told the Times.
One of the reasons for their appeal is the way libraries intrinsically connect—they bring together people and knowledge, people and other people, and also people and other places, sometimes in their own city.
Back in Calgary, the new library creates a literal and figurative gateway between the well-established downtown and freshly rejuvenated East Village, which was historically excluded from the more prosperous life of the city.
Bounded by railway tracks, a river and a city hall building that turned its back on a district where some incomes are a third of the Calgary average, the area languished for decades. The connector designed by architecture firm Snøhetta is a portal made of Douglas fir that has been fashioned into a “Chinook Arch”—a shape that mirrors the formation of clouds characteristic of the uniquely prairie meteorological phenomenon. “It’s designed to allow people to walk freely between [East Village and downtown] without having to enter the library building,” Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snøhetta, told CityLab. “You pass through this wooden archway, over the tracks, and into the different parts of town. We’ll see a lot of people walking through this very generous public space.”
Snøhetta is undoubtedly one of the most sought-after architectural firms in the world today, and the team has a fondness for libraries: they’ve designed award-winning institutions in sites from Alexandria, Egypt, to Ryerson University in Toronto, Temple University in Philadelphia, North Carolina State University, Far Rockaway, New York and Saudi Arabia. But when Craig Dykers first arrived in Calgary a decade ago, his was just another excellent group vying for work on a library in the depths of the recession.
“We could see Calgary changing at that time,” Dykers says. “The city was developing walkways along the Bow River and a lot of other things that were not money-making things. They were building amenities that were driven by generosity as opposed to monetization and consumerization. When we saw that, we thought we wanted to be involved.”
Later, when the site was chosen, Snøhetta was doubly intrigued. It was an opportunity not only to connect neighborhoods, but also to find a solution to a space that presented, as Dykers puts it, “this amazing event of a lightrail train going right through the middle of the site on a curve.” Dykers saw what he called “a problemtunity”—something pushing back that allowed a different kind of reaction. “The kind of unique challenge that promotes unique solutions,” he says.
Snøhetta’s 240,000-square-foot, $245-million solution was to create what Dykers calls a “social monument,” a building that responded to the public and political pressure to create an “iconic” institution by focusing on the opportunity for social engagement that it presented—by studying and imagining how people would move and interact within and around the building. “In our office, we’re very much in love with how people interact with one another,” he says. “And that’s very difficult to do with architecture because architecture is fundamentally a static object, and people are very fluid.”
So while the beauty of the building is important to Snøhetta, “what drives us is to create a place where people might not remember exactly what the building look like, but will have a very good memory of the experience they had there,” Dykers says. “It should be a place where people are comfortable to interact with friends and strangers, collaborate on projects for the future, or reflect on knowledge of the past that might be found in books. And if they can walk away with a memory or a narrative of something they discovered while they were in the space, that’s far more important than the Instagrammable photograph that one expects from an iconic building.”
The city of Helsinki approached its new Central Library Oodi with community and experiential offerings in mind. Part of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012, the competition for Oodi was a key part of establishing Helsinki’s international reputation as a city of design. A library team collected citizens’ “library dreams,” which included tranquility, services for families, peer learning, learning by doing, events and digital services. More than 500 firms competed for the commission; six shortlisted designs were displayed on interactive screens in public places, and people were encouraged to “like” their favorites. “The huge popularity of Oodi reflects the success of the participatory design process,” the library website notes.
Oodi bills itself as “a library of a new era, a living and functional meeting place open for all.” Indeed, only a third of its 185,000 square feet of space is devoted to books. As for the rest? The second floor is dedicated to learning by doing; there, you might see people making wearables on the sewing machines, using the laser or 3D scanners and sticker printers for a school project, jamming with friends in the music room, even directing a shoot in the photo and video studio. There’s a “book heaven” on the third floor, where visitors can sprawl in seven reading oases complete with potted trees and verdant plants. Elsewhere, there is room for pop-up markets and space for rent for client meetings. Think of Oodi as a co-working space on steroids.
In Calgary, the result of Snøhetta’s approach is breathtakingly beautiful and sublimely photogenic—just ask the crowds of teenagers who show up after school every day. As important, into the unique space Meilleur and her team have brought an unusual approach. There’s programming that has engaged institutions across the city, from the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, which sponsored a speaker series in the performance hall, to the Winter Cycling Congress, which is planning an international conference at the library.
But there’s also, in the service department approach, an idea about the limitless nature and potential of libraries themselves. “We’re inspired by great libraries,” Meilleur says. “But we don’t confine ourselves to the world of libraries. We look at the kinds of places that are delivering exceptional visitor experiences, particularly at retail and hospitality trends. It helps keep things fresh and new.” Meilleur tosses around phrases like “moments of surprise and delight,” “taking you outside of your regular experience” and “creating these peak moments”—the sort of language you hear in the marketing of five-star hotels.
The point being, of course, that libraries are not five-star hotels. They’re public spaces where rich and poor equally leave their regular lives, share peak moments and experience surprise and delight. All of which makes these most public of spaces what they really are in the modern world: the ultimate luxury.