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Turning over new leaves: Can outdoor spaces help libraries grow?

17 February 2020   (0 Comments)
Turning over new leaves: Can outdoor spaces help libraries grow?

Turning over new leaves: Can outdoor spaces help libraries grow?

“IF you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need,” observed Cicero in a letter dating from 46 B.C. In fact, some translations suggest an even more emphatic quotation: “If you have a garden in your library, everything will be complete!” 1

The inspiration for this piece of evidence grew from my recent visit to the Sir Alex Ferguson Library (previously known as the Saltire Centre), which houses the library of Glasgow Caledonian University. On a tour of the library and its facilities, I was intrigued to discover a designated outside space: the Rooftop Garden, which is available to all library users between 1 April and 31 October). At a time when many libraries are under greater pressure than ever “to do more with less”,2 I was curious about how the Sir Alex Ferguson Library has made use of what could easily be dismissed as non-functional space, and how readily its users (the library offers free membership to students, staff and community members) have embraced the existence of a garden “inside” their library.

So far, the public library that I work in (located in a busy residential setting) has not made deliberate use of its small outdoor space, yet the Sir Alex Ferguson Library (situated in Glasgow’s city centre) encouraged me to reflect on how even highly urbanised libraries can be creative about including nature and greenery. I would like to use this piece of evidence to contextualise the library’s Rooftop Garden within discussion of other libraries that feature outdoor spaces, to reflect on what impact a garden can have on libraries and their users, and to identify realistic starting points to support institutions like my own that have not yet explored the potential of their outdoor areas. Glasgow Caledonian University © Glasgow Caledonian University

The Sir Alex Ferguson Library’s Rooftop Garden
Described by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) as an “outdoor learning space”,3 the Rooftop Garden is located on the building’s second floor. In general terms, the library’s design seems engineered to encourage access for both students and members of the public. Users enter via ground floor automatic doors that do not have barriers (or even require the swipe of a library card) or from one of several interconnected campus buildings. According to GCU, these teaching spaces are structurally linked to the library to foster student familiarity and confidence with the library’s resources. After following a spiral staircase that features several large skylight windows, reinforcing an architectural connection between inside and outside, the Rooftop Garden is accessed through a simple single door: making it easier to reach than I expected and presenting the garden as no different to any other library space. Glasgow Caledonian University © Glasgow Caledonian University

In keeping with the rest of the building, the garden appears designed to accommodate a diverse array of users and purposes: combining different colours of plants with grass, gravel and paving stones, and featuring both covered and open seating areas. While visually the space may look more like a social or recreational area, its location near the centre of the library building made it feel to me more like an extension of its indoor spaces: one of several options available for group work, discussion, reading and research.

Library gardens around the world
The Garden’s sense of both architectural and functional flow – physically situating the garden as part of the library and forging connections between it and the library’s broader resources – is also a characteristic of many other library gardens that I have encountered during my research, both in the UK and internationally. Oodi Library photo: Wikimedia commons cc-by-sa-4.0 User Wandering Trad

The New Helsinki Central Library in Finland, for example, has a reading room that extends into an outside terrace: achieving what visitors describe as a ‘seamless connection’ between the library and the outside world that helps to present the library as, according to its architects, ‘Helsinki’s common living room’.4 The Library Planet website also provides an online space where passionate library staff can share images of their workplaces5 and I found images of greenery inside library branches in locations as diverse as Aarhus University Library in Denmark, where plants are situated at the heart of its atrium, and Shanghai Library, with floor-to-ceiling windows and ivy hanging down from balcony levels. Library Garden in Aarhus University Library. Photo © Laura Stamer

In the United States, Boulder Public Library in Colorado runs a ‘Seed to Table’ initiative that even allows customers to take up to five free packets of seeds of vegetables, herbs or flowers, reinforcing a triangulation of the library, its garden and visitors’ own homes (including those who may struggle to access affordable and healthy food products from other sources). One particularly unique aspect of Boulder Library’s outdoor provision is its collection of Rooftop Beehives! According to staff, these have helped to generate several initiatives such as the Beeliterate public education programme, combining information on the beehives with more general literary resources, and even allowed the library to sell beeswax candles and wraps as a fundraising commodity.6

Boulder Library’s garden is maintained by both staff and volunteers, and a strength of many library gardens I have researched seems to be the blurring of boundaries between libraries and their wider communities: combining food, recreation, sociability and sustainability through the effective use of library resources. At the CILIPS Autumn Gathering in September 2019, poet and author Joseph Coelho noted in his keynote speech that many UK libraries have similar vegetable growing programmes. Having tweeted his surprise at Dundee Library growing tomatoes when he visited as part of his Library Marathon – an effort to promote the work of libraries by visiting a branch in every UK local authority – he described being shocked to receive a great many replies from other green-fingered libraries around the country!

Another international library that has been creative in its approach to its outdoor space is Austin Central Library in Texas, with a rooftop garden that features a butterfly habitat to promote conservation and provide a relaxing space for users!7 Staff at Brown County Library in Wisconsin also, despite being situated in a built-up urban area, describe treating their garden as the library’s ‘front door’: creating an unusually homely entrance filled with trees and bushes, and once again growing berries and long beans. Staff there described the space as like an “outdoor classroom” that supports library children’s programming in particular,8 and many of the library gardens that I encountered during my research emphasised a link between children’s education and garden spaces.

Nevertheless, the library is a space designed for students at every stage of life, and another UK library garden I recently visited in person also seeks to achieve a balance between catering for both young and adult audiences. Dove Cottage in the Lake District village of Grasmere was once the home of William Wordsworth, his wife Mary and his sister Dorothy (author of The Grasmere Journal), and the space was also visited regularly by contemporary poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When I visited Dove Cottage (cared for by the Wordsworth Trust) in July 2019, the cottage itself was closed for conservation work in preparation for the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth in 2020.9 Visitors were, however, still able to explore the Trust’s Library, as well as reading extracts and viewing original papers from both William and Dorothy’s writing. Crucially, I was struck by how the Trust had made use of Dove Cottage’s garden – restored as accurately as possible to its condition when the Wordsworths lived there – and connected it with events, exhibitions and the poetry itself. From sessions on Outdoor Eco-Art to guided tours exploring what parts of the garden and surrounding landscape inspired Wordsworth’s work, Dove Cottage seemed to provide a strong example of how to circumvent the challenges posed when a popular space requires temporary closure and how to conceptually align a library garden with its literary resources.

While William Wordsworth’s 1798 The Tables Turned encouraged his readers to set down their books (at least temporarily!) and experience the power of nature for expanding the mind, Dove Cottage in 2019 has – like many of the international library gardens I encountered during my research – combined the natural world with literature to create novel and exciting library spaces.10 For many of us, there seems to be an intuitive sense that “green” libraries can enhance creativity, relaxation and even health – yet what evidence is there of the benefits that library gardens can bring?

Budding benefits of library gardens
Widespread data gathered across different fields indicates that being outdoors or at least having plants and flowers nearby can have a positive impact on physical health, mental wellbeing and the capacity to learn. For instance, a March 2017 Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs report (compiled in conjunction with the European Centre for Environment & Human Health) identified ‘an extensive and robust body of evidence’ connecting access to green spaces with reduced mortality, specifically citing health benefits such as healthier heart rates, blood pressure, vitamin D levels, cortisol levels and recuperation rates.11 In 2019, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ sustainability committee also recognised the potential benefits of outside spaces for mental health, asserting that “spending time outdoors… can really improve mental health… our senses are engaged differently… our imagination can be sparked and we can gain a different perspective on our lives, projects and problems.”12 These benefits also appear to extend to concentration and learning outcomes: research published by staff at Plymouth University, for example, called on schools to prioritise time outdoors, acknowledging that outside activities help to develop skills in self-directed and creative learning.13

For library gardens specifically, however, there has until recently been very little research conducted regarding the effects that green spaces may have on library users (or even their staff!) In 2019, Carrie Scott Banks and Cindy Mediavilla published Libraries and Gardens: Growing Together, creating what they claim to be the “first-ever book on the subject” and making reference to many of the library gardens already in existence across the United States.14 They identify medicinal or herbal demonstration gardens as the historical ancestors of today’s green library spaces, and highlight work such as that described above at Boulder Public Library as having the potential to improve both community engagement with libraries and even – through programmes like Seed to Table – broader community health. Indeed, a major theme that I have encountered in discussion of library gardens has been that of community involvement. Brown County Library’s staff, for example, noted how they had needed a local fundraising campaign to begin their garden and this allowed it to begin and endure as a collaborative effort. From my research, this seems to be one of the key benefits of establishing and maintaining a library garden: bringing together existing library users, new volunteers and community gardening or nature organisations, with the library itself located at the heart of the venture.

From little acorns to great oaks, starting points for libraries with green dreams!
In concluding my examination of library gardens in context, I would like to reflect on the possibilities for libraries like my own, with no utilised green spaces at present but hopes to develop them in the future. The evidence I have found suggests that, far from being a separate entity, library gardens often function as an extension or even an emblem of libraries themselves, adapting to meet the needs of users and reflecting the wider priorities present within their communities. Efforts to establish a library garden may reveal challenges as well as opportunities: all of the libraries I researched highlighted the need for ongoing, year-round garden maintenance, which could be problematic for branches like my own where many staff are employed on short-term or zero-hours contracts. The potential for vandalism, although not reported as an issue in any of the library gardens I studied, has also been raised as a concern by several of my colleagues. A more unusual variation of the problem did face Boulder Library staff when planning their rooftop beehives, who needed to ensure that the hives would not attract bears! Nevertheless, it seems to me that the greatest defence against these difficulties could be found in one of the greatest benefits that grows from library gardens: establishing and cultivating community connections, where people are encouraged to reconsider what their local library provides and the role it plays in their lives. With sustainability and environmental concerns becoming a growing concern for libraries and their users15, I would encourage libraries to experiment with making the most of the natural resources around them. In so doing, we may discover new ways to help make our spaces flourish!

Does your library have a beautiful outdoor space? Share your images by emailing or tweet us at @infopromag

1 Latin Texts and Translations. Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University, Massachusetts. Available online at [last accessed 17/09/19]
2 Ajie, Ifeoma. ICT Training and Development of the 21st Century Librarian. Philosophy and Practice Journal (Feb 2019): pp.1-17.
3 Outdoor Learning Spaces, GCU Students’ Association, 29th March 2019.
4 Guignard, Thomas, Libraries Through the Lens, Information Professional (April – May 2019), p. 7.
5 Cited in Focus on International Library and Information Work Vol. 50, No. 1 (2019).
6 American Libraries, The Buzz on Library Gardens, Dewey Decibel Podcast, Episode 38, (June 2019).
7 Austin Central Library, Texas – a sustainable dream library! Library Planet. Available online at [last accessed 01/10/2019].
8 American Libraries, The Buzz on Library Gardens, Dewey Decibel Podcast, Episode 38, (June 2019).
9 The Wordsworth Trust. More information available at [last accessed 10/10/19].
10 Oxford University has also adopted a comparable approach: combining gardens with libraries and museums on its Mindgrowing website that encourages visitors to plan educational visits. [last accessed 11/10/2019].
11 Evidence Statement on the links between natural environments and human health, (March 2017).
12 Available online at Also cited in The Telegraph, 9th October 2019.
13 Cited in Kinver, Mark, Outdoor learning “boosts children’s development”, BBC News: Science and Environment, 15th July 2016.
14 Banks, Carrie Scott and Cindy Mediavilla, Libraries and Gardens: Growing Together (ALA Editions: Atlanta, 2019).
15 For example, Climate Change and Collection Preservation was a key theme at the June 2019 Rare Books and Manuscript annual conference (held in Baltimore, US).


Contributor: Kirsten MacQuarrie, library assistant and writer, South Lanarkshire. Debut poetry collection at
Published: 17 February 2020

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