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Designing Libraries: An Academic Question

Vienna University Library

Designing Libraries: An academic question

Earlier this year I attended the biennial Liber Architecture Group (Lag) seminar, held in the Zaha Hadid-designed library and learning centre building on the impressive campus of the Vienna University of Economics and Business (known locally as WU). The idea in attending was to get an overview of how changes in technology and learning environments are influencing the design of library spaces across Europe.

The design challenges facing the academic library had seemed to me less of a problem than finding solutions to the inherited constraints of public libraries and public library buildings in their transition from traditional book-lending services to community and cultural spaces with a wider remit. After all, the academic library audience is easy to define, its purpose as a support to teaching, learning and research obvious, and its value not in doubt. No one, surely, is going to argue about what and who a library is for?

Will the centre hold?

Yet it soon became clear, from the experience of various European design projects, and from comments by delegates, that the evolution of academic libraries from static collections to dynamic learning centres is fraught with contradictions. For one thing, not all universities are building new campuses, and where departments are widely distributed and largely autonomous, the idea of a “centre” of any sort has sometimes been hard to achieve. Someone commented that if you ask 500 faculty members what a library should be, you will get 500 different answers. That a library should also be a “learning centre” turned out to be surprisingly contentious.

“Librarians know about learning” – so librarians are the obvious champions of a unifying vision for a library that will in effect be the heart of the campus. But one presentation turned into a case study of coping with failure, and could easily have been titled, “know your limitations”. While for librarians the library as learning centre is implicit in the very idea of the library, the forces of inertia, conservatism and self-interest can leave the library simply as a go-to collection of resources to support teaching, where learning spaces are seen as incursions into proprietorial teaching spaces. As in all organisations, change requires strong leadership under a unifying vision, without which the best we can hope for is, as one speaker succinctly put it, incremental innovation.

Are books just for decoration?

This has become a common question as libraries increasingly purchase resources in digital form, and evolve into collaborative spaces where knowledge is not only accessed but co-created. WU found students were uncomfortable with the idea of a library without books – they liked the ability to browse. But analysis of use showed only fairly recent works were regularly accessed, as you would expect in the areas of finance, economics and business, so older works are held in store.

The space, the user journey through the building and the opportunities for cross-disciplinary interaction are its defining character. Not everyone thinks the building successfully balances form with function. Although there are about 1,700 study spaces, pressure on space is already apparent, and the design of the building around its dizzying central staircase and off-kilter walls creates its own limitations. Your space or mine?

Because the WU library and learning centre building is so impressive, as are the campus’s five other buildings designed by world-renowned architects from the UK, Spain, Japan and Austria, the university as a place and an attraction in its own right can’t be ignored. It’s right next to the Prater, Vienna’s immensely popular funfair with its famous big wheel. As with any new university, it immediately raises the question of civic responsibility, a question Martin Svoboda addressed when planning the building of the National Technical Library in Prague which has diverse roles – academic, professional, social and cultural, as well as being a key public space in an urban environment with an extensive partnership programme of public events, workshops and lectures.

WU runs a Children’s University in the summer where kids can follow their curiosity, and it invites everyone in the city to a summer celebration at the end of the academic year. With only The Hive in the UK as a formal joint public and academic learning and cultural space, it seems to me still a key question for future city campus developments: what is a library and who is it for?


Contributor: David Lindley is Executive Director of Designing Libraries, a Community Interest Company.

Published: 13 September 2018

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