UK Library Buildings: An Insider’s Perspective on Activity 2011 – 2015

by Karen Latimer


James Campbell and Will Pryce in their world history of libraries comment that it is hard to reconcile talk of a crisis in library design due to spending cuts and the decline in importance of printed material with “the continued explosion in library construction in the first decade of this century and the large number of library buildings currently being built. For a construction sector in crisis it seems to be a remarkably healthy one”[1]. The Designing Libraries website records over 60 UK library projects completed in the five years from 2011 – 2015, the majority of which are refurbishments or extensions. Some were very significant enhancements of older buildings including historic buildings of major architectural importance. Trends include an increasing focus on user requirements, community awareness, energy efficiency and sustainability. While it became more difficult to secure funding for library buildings, librarians who were fleet of foot, had adjusted to meet new demands and remained at the heart of their respective communities, were able to make the case to funding authorities to provide attractive, well-designed physical spaces to deliver increasingly varied and electronic services. It is not possible in a blog to do justice to the various developments and more detail can be obtained from a chapter in British Librarianship and Information Work 2011-2015 on which this blog is based[2].

Design Trends

Adherence to standards is less rigid in the 21st century than used to be the case when library design was more focused on housing large collections with substantial areas of closed as well as open stacks requiring recommended aisle widths and lighting levels. Seating areas were previously more formal with less variety in their arrangement and lower demand for group study spaces. The emphasis now is very much on ubiquitous access and a combination of informal, relaxed seating and a range of different study spaces. Aligning plans for libraries with the needs of the community, whether it be a public or an academic library, means that no longer does one rule suit all. Nonetheless, when planning a library project, it remains essential to define space needs for users, collections, staff and meeting areas as well as the space for building services, circulation and other behind the scenes activities. Differing uses of space, learning and research requirements from a user perspective, staff needs, post-occupancy evaluation, green issues and sustainability have come to the fore, emphasising the use of environmentally friendly building materials, regenerative energy and the successful conservation of existing building fabric. Cost-effective off-site, or indeed on-site, storage using robotics and automation is being emphasized for libraries with large heritage collections.

Ubiquitous and high quality IT and Wi-Fi facilities and access to ever-increasing e-collections are now essential ingredients in any new or refurbished libraries.  Accommodating long opening hours, providing a wide variety of seating and study spaces to suit all styles of learning, study and research with special areas for different types of users have emerged as matters to be addressed. Increased attention is being paid to the design of staff areas with much debate about open-plan versus individual office space. As libraries subscribe more and more to the same resources, one of the things that differentiates them is their special collections and archives, so these are acquiring a higher profile in the allocation of space. In universities, learning and teaching spaces increasingly are being incorporated into or managed by the libraries, and in all types of libraries inclusion of makerspaces and creative spaces has made its way across the Atlantic. A useful document The UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit[3] provides details of trends in the design of learning spaces which are affecting all types of libraries. The previously mentioned Designing Libraries website highlights trends providing details of architects’ designs, plans and images for innovative new libraries, the management of library building projects, moving collections, acoustics and topics like how to photograph a library.

Academic Library Buildings

The UK higher education sector continued to expand between 2011 and 2015 and with postgraduates and international students paying higher fees, many universities did their utmost to attract such students. This obviously had an impact on library services and on library spaces. There was an increasing call for dedicated postgraduate spaces and many examples of students being consulted on the kind of study and learning spaces they required. Universities aspiring to climb the rankings tables recognised the importance of good library buildings.

Winners of the SCONUL Library Design Award included the Augustine House Library and Student Services Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University and the McClay Library at Queen’s University Belfast. Key features were the bringing together of services and the provision of a high-quality technology-rich building with a wide variety of study and learning spaces. The University of Exeter saw the linking of new learning spaces, social facilities and all key student services with the library with a doubling of library seating capacity, refurbishment of the study environment with greatly increased numbers of PCs, power sockets and, of course, pervasive Wi-Fi throughout. The University of the West of Scotland library on the Ayr campus made very flexible use of space and provided individual and group study spaces as well as presentation and seminar areas. The Esteve-Coll Centre at Kingston which opened in 2012 involved the refurbishment of a 1930s space and the relocation of the Learning Resources Centre to create an interdisciplinary learning zone at the heart of the campus.

The Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen opened to readers in 2011. The building was much fêted in the architectural press in particular and its architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen, already with the Black Diamond in Copenhagen under its collective belt, went on to take awards and plaudits for its cutting edge DOKK1 library and media centre in Aarhus in 2016. The new library at Aberdeen brought together two collections, following a major weed of unused stock, from outdated 1950s and 1960s buildings into a dramatic seven-storey, glazed cube with a since much-imitated skewed curvilinear atrium. As well as providing up-to-date facilities for students, this building also had a public remit with a café on the ground floor as well as space for exhibitions and events. A few years later, in 2013, Robert Gordon University opened its new library on a riverside campus to the south of Aberdeen. The library occupies the top five floors of a tower in the centre of the campus and is very much part of an integrated interdisciplinary learning space.

Another exemplar library building which opened in 2011 was the stunning restoration and reuse for Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London of a 19th-century granary warehouse as part of the new King’s Cross regeneration project. The conversion retained original features, creating a wonderfully atmospheric interior while also providing very practical user spaces. A new library for the University of East London at its Stratford campus opened in 2012 providing “collaborative learning spaces, interactive technologies, self-service facilities for library users, as well as a special collections area and reading room”[4] . Discussions had been held from an early stage with students and they continued to be involved right up to the selection of furniture stage.

Two new libraries that sparked great interest in 2014 were those for Oxford Brookes and the University of Greenwich. Both demonstrated well-thought out briefs responding to new requirements which, not surprisingly, resulted in a significant increase in use. The key goals were to provide welcoming, secure, inspirational, IT-enabled spaces for study, learning and research with a wide choice of seating and environments. The libraries were located to ensure students had easy access to a range of other facilities related to their educational and social life at university. Staff needs, so often left to last, were carefully thought out. The following year, 2015, saw the development at the Laidlaw Library at Leeds University of a very successful, welcoming, highly sustainable undergraduate facility encouraging independent study where students can come with their own mobile devices and choose from a wide range of individual and group study areas.

Another 2015 RIBA award-winning library is the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull. The redevelopment and refurbishment of this iconic library building created up-to-date facilities which combined open and collaborative learning spaces with traditional spaces for its collections while respecting the architecture of the original building. It very successfully brought together and unified the art deco and brutalism periods of the old buildings and in the process created a library fit for the future. Achieving a successful outcome says much for the relationship between librarian and architect and the importance of the design brief in the planning process. One of the most breathtaking libraries opened in 2015 was the Weston Library (formerly known as the New Bodleian Library) at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. It was a major refurbishment project which achieved a new environment with innovative services for researchers while providing wider public access to the collections through exhibitions and events. Much of the rich art deco interior was retained. Achievements were the creation of high quality storage of valuable collections; the support of advanced research; improved speed of access to the collections using digital technology; the expansion of public access; and the improvement of the environment for teaching and learning. The realization of this project was helped by the previous construction of Oxford University’s book storage facility at Swindon.

Two university libraries taking an incremental improvement approach in recent years are Durham University and the University of Edinburgh. At Durham the Main Library, now renamed the Bill Bryson Library, was completely refurbished and a new extension added. The law and music collections were transferred to the new space, staff were moved to a new open-plan workroom to improve adjacencies, the number of study spaces was increased, greater wireless capacity and power to all study spaces were provided and the mechanical and electrical systems upgraded. At Edinburgh, the listed 1967 Basil Spence-designed library underwent a major renovation and was very sensitively handled over several phases, the most recent being completed in 2013. The aim was to create an intellectual hub for the University where users could interact with each other and with information specialists while also building in flexibility to accommodate the inevitable future changes.

Collaboration on the provision of learning and teaching space continued, the way having been paved by projects such as the Warwick Learning Grid, the Saltire Centre and Sheffield’s Information Commons. The University of Sheffield in September 2015 opened what they saw as the next stage in the evolution of such facilities. The Diamond is an impressive mixture of library functions, study spaces and teaching zones. The Alan Gilbert Learning Commons at the University of Manchester is another leading example of this type of space.

Public Library Buildings

There is no doubt that the functions of public libraries and academic libraries are moving closer and from a design and planning point of view much can be learnt from one type of library and applied to another. A library which provided a very clear link between the academic and public library sectors was the Hive, University of Worcester, which opened in 2012. The Hive brought together the University of Worcester and Worcester County Council and Public Library to deliver a service together to all their user groups. Staff from all services work together and visitors, be they small children, university students or members of the public seeking council services, are welcomed enthusiastically. The theory is that all users benefit from access to collaborative services.  For the University, it is the physical embodiment of its aim to impact positively on its community. The Hive is a building that would appear on anyone’s shortlist for key library buildings in the early 21st century.

The picture is less glowing for more conventional public library buildings opened over the five-year period. Undoubtedly cuts in funding have had an impact on the physical buildings which house the services under threat or at least change although many consider that the library will continue to offer a safe and neutral community space featuring excellent customer service and advice.  There have been several innovative new library buildings and sensitive refurbishments carried out.

The Library of Birmingham opened to much fanfare, heavy use and controversy in 2013.  The building itself has received much-deserved praise but funding issues have beset the library.  The exterior reflects Birmingham’s industrial heritage and history of jewellery making and the interior provides a place of many spaces and many functions with publicly accessible gardens and a roof terrace, a dark circular reading room as well as the re-erected Shakespeare Memorial Room reached by a dramatic glass lift and much more.

The other two major central libraries opened during this period are restoration projects. In Manchester, the aim of the refurbishment was to make more of the building accessible to the public and provide more reading space. Four storeys of book stacks were removed and replaced by a large circular reading room and archive search area near the entrance. The re-ordering of the original space saw the insertion of modern servicing, ICT and power, as well as the addition of a welcoming entrance. A nearby café, exhibition space, film booths and local studies facilities have all helped to ensure the continuing use of an impressive, historic library building.

Like Manchester, Liverpool closed its central library for refurbishment in 2010, reopening with much acclaim in 2013.  Post-war additions were successfully stripped away and new spaces created while retaining and restoring the magnificent Picton Reading Room of 1879 and also the later Oak Room and Hornby Library. A new entrance was created and a stunning six-storey high atrium with slanting columns and staircases and escalators leading to well-equipped reading rooms, the collections, computer facilities, archives and a rooftop terrace. As well as providing social spaces, books on shelves are visible and there are quiet spaces dedicated to reading and research.

Several smaller but notable new library buildings opened between 2011 and 2015 and low-budget refurbishments and upgradings were undertaken. Hepburn central library near Newcastle was one project and another was the 2011 Canada Water library. An inverted pyramid is strategically located beside the tube and bus stations and is both sculptural and practical.  The floors become progressively wider and quieter as they go up and are accessed via a dramatic staircase with the noisier activities, café and performance space on the ground floor. Another smaller library of note in this period was Studio Egret West’s new Clapham library in Lambeth which opened in 2012. This exciting library, with its circular form, spiral staircase and openings onto the children’s and public area, has echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry and Gunnar Asplund in its design as well as a nod to the Italian piazza. The movable furniture and a range of break-out and quiet areas give it variety and flexibility. The library is part of a larger development with a health centre adjacent to it and housing above and demonstrates the advantage of co-location in terms both of use and funding. More recently the latest of the ground-breaking Idea Stores opened in 2013, eleven years after the first one opened in Bow in 2002, closely followed by further iterations in Chrisp Street and Whitechapel in 2004 and 2005. It takes the customer-comes-first retail approach of its predecessors and with a good connection to the adjacent street market and public thoroughfare, hosts a range of council and community services. There is a flexible layout with movable furniture and it is highly sustainable.


The five years 2011–2015 saw, perhaps surprisingly, a great deal of British library building activity particularly in the academic library sector, including refurbishments, extensions, some of them very major indeed, and a range of new buildings of varying sizes in all sectors. This overview merely scratches the surface and highlights some key projects. It is interesting to note that moves are afoot to revive the Public Library Awards, perhaps spurred on by the opening of much-fêted The Word designed by Faulkner Brown and other recent developments. The winners of the 2016 SCONUL Awards (just outside the scope of this blog posting) featured The Hive (the academic/ public library partnership mentioned above), the major refurbishment of the listed Modernist Hull University Library and libraries that had worked hard on creating effective learning and research spaces based on user feedback. Brexit looms in the future and challenges abound. Libraries and librarians are good at reinventing themselves and opportunities for further developments present themselves. Tom Hickerson has noted thathigh-tech, high-quality spaces supported by technical and intellectual expertise with a great service ethic were an unbeatable combination”[5]. There are challenges ahead but the future for library buildings still looks healthy and exciting.

The Word
The Word

[1] James W. P. Campbell and Will Pryce, The library: a world history. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013

[2] Karen Latimer “Library buildings” in J.H. Bowman British librarianship and information work 2011-2015. London: Published by the editor via , 2017 pp.411-426

[3] The UK Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit. Produced by the Standing Conference for Heads of Media Services, the Association of University Directors of Estates and the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association

[4] Cathy Walsh, “University of East London: the new Stratford campus library”, SCONUL focus 59, 2013, 37–8

[5] Hickerson, Tom, ‘Designing 21st century spaces for 21st century roles’, Feliciter 60 (6), 2014, 15–18

Author details

Karen Latimer currently chairs the UK Designing Libraries Advisory Board and chaired the IFLA Library Buildings & Equipment Standing Committee from 2007 – 2011. She is a member of the LIBER European Research Libraries Architecture Group and a founding member and past secretary of the UK Architecture Librarians Group, ARCLIB.  She was also Chair of Hearth Housing Association and Revolving Fund, a building preservation trust which restores historic buildings for social housing or resale, from 2000-2015.

Karen has published widely on a range of library and architectural topics and frequently speaks at national and international conferences. Karen is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, an honorary member of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and was awarded an OBE in 2007 for services to architectural heritage. She can be contacted at

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