By Ayub Khan
There is a widely held perception that British public libraries are in decline and that the proliferation of online services and continuing financial pressures are proving too much. Similarly, people think that new library buildings are rarer than giant pandas. Neither is in fact the case.
Media coverage over recent years has focused on closures and falling loan figures. Positives like the growth of virtual libraries and the diversification of physical services into new and exciting areas, such as computer coding, Lego clubs and high-tech Makerspaces seem to be less newsworthy. Big building projects in major conurbations tend to get plenty of media coverage but local library developments fail to attract the same attention.
It is frustrating to read and hear that public libraries have perhaps ‘had their day’ when the sector is vibrant. UK libraries receive 250.8 million visits a year, more than all cinemas, night clubs and professional sporting events.
Public libraries are evolving, not dying out. They are re-inventing themselves as they have done throughout their history in response to socio-economic shifts, demographic pressures, changing customer demands and expectations, and the digital age. Many look and feel a lot different, particularly on the inside. Makeovers reflect the different ways libraries are used nowadays. When I started my career almost three decades ago, around 70% of library space was traditionally occupied by books and borrowing points, with only 30% for other activities. Now it is the other way around. Similar figures apply to the balance between front-of-house and backroom space in libraries.
Retail influences are apparent in many modernised libraries. Reworked library interiors often have a retail feel about them, and aim to create a more relaxed atmosphere. Recent research demonstrates that most public library users are browsers, and only one in four is looking for something specific. Many customers choose from displays. Like shops, libraries need to showcase what they offer in tempting ways.
At the same time, many Carnegie libraries are peeling away layers of change and reviving some of their original features for the 21st century. For example, traditional reading rooms are now an ideal place to accommodate customers who bring in their own e-devices, and take advantage of free public Wi-Fi.
The big change in the United Kingdom is a move towards multi-use buildings that house not just libraries but other local services as well. This sometimes proves controversial but offers big benefits both for customers, who have the convenience of more services in one place, and service-providers, who save money by sharing costs. Multi-use partnerships do not follow a set pattern. In Worcester, for example, The Hive is a combined public and university library. The recently refurbished Core in Solihull accommodates library, theatre, gallery and local council services. In Chester, a £37 million project turned a 1930s cinema into the Storyhouse with a theatre, cinema, library, restaurant and bars.
I have personal experience of the multi-use thinking behind another example. Some years ago, I was involved in the early concept design and planning for the new Library of Birmingham which opened in England’s second largest city in 2013.
The landmark building is a cultural centre on ten floors incorporating performance and exhibition spaces, archives and special collections, relaxation and study areas, a cafeteria, meeting spaces, roof gardens and the latest technology, as well as a public library of around 400,000 books. It has recently been adapted to include a Language School. Part of a major urban regeneration project, the building was designed to fulfil many roles. Book-lending was not top of the list of performance indicators.
Makeovers and New Builds
Despite the global recession and its aftermath, substantial investment in new libraries has continued, along with programmes of refurbishment to bring many older libraries up-to-date. Our library buildings are a real mix of ancient and modern which brings its challenges. We must update older properties with sensitivity, simultaneously respecting and reusing the buildings, whilst developing services to meet modern-day customer needs. And new-builds must be conveniently located and sit well with their surroundings.
Older libraries, large and small, are receiving makeovers and new ones are being constructed. Not just big shiny developments in major cities, but also new libraries in smaller towns serving local communities. Three projects from my own area, Warwickshire in England, make the point well. They are all quite different but underpinned by the same guiding principle of multi-use: Southam Library is co-located with ‘extra care’ accommodation for older people; Alcester Library shares premises with the Town Council and Roman Museum; and Stratford-upon-Avon Library shares its building with the Registration Service.
The first project is a new, purpose-built library in Southam, an historic market town where Charles I, later to be beheaded by Parliament, is said to have stayed before the Battle of Edgehill in 1642.
The former library building on a generous plot was much-valued but showing its age. Warwickshire Libraries seized the opportunity to work with a housing association, developers, architects, other local councils and community groups on an ambitious town-centre redevelopment plan.
The site was an ideal place to build the extra care housing supporting independent living for older people that Southam lacked (a council priority) and presented an opportunity to reinvigorate the town centre. The completed £12 million scheme includes the new Southam Library, 75 extra-care homes for older people, a restaurant and other community spaces. At a time of limited resources, this project made the most of the former library site, providing brand new facilities at the heart of the community.
The main costs to Warwickshire County Council related to the library interior, furniture, fittings and information technology. The library service pays a basic rent which covers the maintenance of the site. The new library opened in 2016 and has proved a great success, with more visitors, increased loans, and lots of glowing compliments from local people. The official opening provided an opportunity to remind decision-makers and influencers of the important role libraries play in the community and how libraries are changing to meet modern agendas.
Alcester is another Warwickshire market town with a long history dating back to Roman times. It is said to be one of the most excavated small towns in the country with more than one hundred archaeological digs unearthing evidence of Roman occupation over the past 80 years.
In 2016, Alcester Library moved into Globe House, a disused district council building converted to accommodate the town’s library and integrated Roman museum, along with a range of services including the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Town Council, all under one roof.
Proceeds from the sale of the former Alcester Library site were used to redesign Globe House, for which Warwickshire County Council took on a 99-year lease. Locating the library and museum in one building instead of two not only saved money but created a vibrant community hub for culture, heritage and learning. It also provided extra local services including council and police enquiries.
My third project is the redevelopment of Stratford-upon-Avon Library completed in Summer 2017. The timber-framed building in historic Henley Street is next door to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which attracts many thousands of tourists every year. The project had two main purposes, to update and improve library facilities and, at the same time, to create space for the Registration Service to move into the building and conduct wedding ceremonies in a landmark location.
The ceremony space, called The Henley Room has a separate entrance to the library and can be used for marriages for up to 35 guests, as well as library activities such as author events. The room also unlocks a historic and fascinating part of the building, the former entrance to Stratford’s Technical School, which dates to the late 1800s.
The refurbished building also includes two self-contained offices for the registration of births, deaths and legal notices of marriage.
As well as providing much-improved library facilities and an historic setting for weddings, co-locating the Library and Registration services in one building is much more cost-effective.
Co-location – the Way Forward
In Warwickshire we are feeling the financial pinch, like everyone else, but we continue to invest in our local communities and provide customers with the convenience of multiple services in one location. We believe partner projects will prove more sustainable in the long term and enable services to maintain a strong local presence by sharing costs, thus helping to safeguard their future.
IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee member Ayub Khan is Head of Libraries and Face to Face Services for Warwickshire County Council in England. He is Digital Lead for the Society of Chief Librarians and President Elect of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). In 2013 he was awarded an MBE for his services to libraries. He has written articles and publications on library design and theory, including a book: Better by design and regularly speaks to audiences in the UK and abroad. He co-authored the section on library and information centres in the Metric Handbook. firstname.lastname@example.org
 Khan, Ayub (2008) Better by design: an introduction to planning and designing a new library building. (London: Facet Publishing)
 Buxton, Pamela (2015) Metric handbook: planning & design data. 5th ed. (London: Routledge)
IFLA’s Library Buildings and Equipment Section’s mid-year seminar “Innovative Partnerships: a Strategic Imperative” will be held in Birmingham at the Library of Birmingham on Friday 23rd February, 2018, and will explore further some aspects of this topic – Janine Schmidt, Blog Editor.