Our libraries are more than just books; they are signs of our commitment to education and an investment in our communities.
Every day new items are added to RIBApix, the RIBA’s database of architectural images. Some are simply beautiful, such as the melancholic drawing of small houses awkwardly coexisting with the ruins of the Roman temples at Baalbek, Lebanon. The other new images are remarkable in other ways beyond aesthetics.
Amongst the other recent additions to RIBApix have been photographs of libraries from the 1960s. They represent more than the skill of photographic masters such as Henk Snoek, these images capture a more optimistic age when the expansion of free higher education required new spaces and facilities and there was investment in providing amenities for the benefit of the public. These images include: the Main Library, University of Edinburgh, designed by Sir Basil Spence Glover & Ferguson; University of Sussex Library designed by Sir Basil Spence Bonnington & Collins; and Kent County Library, Maidstone, designed by Ewart Trist Ashley-Smith.
Times are less generous now with the ever-growing tuition fees charged by English and Welsh universities and plans to close public libraries across the UK. Contrary to the idea that libraries as physical destinations have no future is the money going into constructing new libraries. Expressed in the decisions made at various levels of local and national government seems to be a conflict between resource allocation and confidence in the future. Whilst local communities and nationwide campaigns have been mobilised to protest against library closures, new libraries are being built in visible locations. Last year saw the opening of CZWG’s £14 million Canada Water Library and work is currently taking place to complete the £188.8 million Birmingham City Library designed by Mecanoo, scheduled to open in just 12 months’ time. They should convince some that we haven’t quite yet lost the ambition to aspire to create buildings for the public good and to use the skills of architects to design for the civic realm.
Libraries have never just been collections of books. They function as public spaces and meeting points for people, places for research and exhibitions and a provider of new skills. For the young and marginalised, libraries can offer a safe environment. A lot of us may not use them regularly, but there are many who do. In these unsettling times of economic austerity it is reassuring that there are these facilities available to us all without question when we need them. Like with many things in life, we don’t miss them until they’ve gone. The new libraries are an investment in our future (even if it seems uncertain) and in our local communities, more so than any shiny shopping mall or a new discount supermarket. Am I right?