Libraries and the Digital Revolution

Jim Eyre

Pinpointing the moment when libraries had to elect to sink or swim is not possible with any precision. However, whether public or academic research-based it is apparent that libraries have and are adapting to change and this process of evolution is now rapid. Public libraries have led the way but only because it was the public library system that was most endangered.

The eye-wateringly fast maturing of the digital revolution means that the potentially uneasy relationship between the virtual world and the physicality of manuscript or printed material is now much more than a marriage of convenience. It would seem inconceivable to remove all the computer terminals from a public library now, whereas the vision of the extinction of the physical library to be supplanted by an on-line version is, if anything, receding, despite Google's splendidly heroic efforts to digitize the back catalogue (where intellectual property rights do not get in the way). The legacy of historic printed material across all languages and cultures is so enormous that for the foreseeable future the process of digital scanning to capture the information is utterly constrained by an inability to turn the pages fast enough. The concomitant of this built-in time lag is another phenomenon: that of an exponential proliferation in digitally produced material. Perhaps it is the tension between the two media that ensures the survival of physical libraries.

The current reinvention of the public library presents a different face from its 20th century incarnation, seen as an essential educational resource for the masses, structured typically around a district library system or network. The central library, which always had civic status, now becomes a new cultural landmark for the city, a 'destination' embracing its users and drawing them in, asserting a city's character and values on a broader stage, while the local library becomes an 'ideas' store, with the emphasis on accessibility for all, contemporary relevance and the sharing of useful information. The architecture for these new typologies is dynamic and expressive reflecting the programme of activities within. The central library is necessarily a more theatrical experience (look at Seattle) - welcoming, exciting and seductive. Victorian and early 20th century central libraries displayed grandeur to embody civic gravitas, speaking to the community from on high and reinforcing a sense of their own importance in a society aspiring to self improvement. Later, with social change, hierarchy in all its forms became unpalatable and public buildings rather less legible as they sought to become democratic and super-functional.

These shifts from temple to anonymous municipal resource and back to civic icon have significance beyond a mere facelift. The digital revolution is stimulating public interest in information and it is for libraries to take up the slack. In the case of public libraries the provision of computer terminals is only the first stage. It is easy to think that everyone has access to the internet at home but in reality this is not the case. The more recent reinventions of the library typology effectively combine the various programmes which serve communities, but in a manner analogous to a department store. The components of the programme are located as discrete elements - reading rooms, exhibition areas, cafés and 'media' areas. In this scenario the risk is that the digital 'ivy' obscures the real, so challenging us to ensure physical collections are engaged with in new and imaginative ways. Books must not be reduced to wallpaper in an expanded internet café.

Curiously, the library as an institution is in a good position to resist this pressure. There is an interesting phenomenon, borne out by the growth in visitor numbers to museums and galleries, that far from supplanting the 'real', flows of digital information (via the web) are actually stimulating renewed interest in real, tangible material. The cult of the object is actually being strengthened. A parallel world of archival material (rare books, records, prints, drawings, letters and photographic images) lies ready to be exposed. The social, political and economic history of a city, invariably already captured by its central library, can be held up to the public through a lively series of coordinated events and exhibitions.

At WilkinsonEyre we are fortunate to be involved in a library project whose mission has had the luxury of a long gestation period, made longer by what may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The project is for an academic research library for special collections located in Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Grade II listed New Bodleian Library at Oxford University, and involves a major reworking of the existing building. The delay is down to problems finalising a location for a new depository which, having been turned down at appeal on a site in Oxford, will now be located at Swindon. The construction of the depository is vital to the New Bodleian project, enabling four million books to be decanted and, in the long term, freeing up sufficient space to enable a transformation into an efficient 21st century research library with facilities to match. The additional time has allowed the library to review its collections, and understand fully how and under what circumstances they are used.

Our dialogue with the librarians has taken us on a journey looking at how both academic and public libraries can create spaces for individual contemplation and learning, as well as conveying a more public expression of the intellectual and cultural wealth of their collections. Currently the Bodleian has very limited public access to its collections, which are almost entirely housed in closed stacks. These stacks form the core of the building and are in need of a major upgrade to meet the requirements of BS5454 for archival storage. As a designated library of record, the Bodleian will have a duty to meet the standards administered by The National Archives. Retention of 'Approved Repository' status is vital to the library not only to ensure that its collections are properly conserved, but also to remain a recipient of legacies (for instance, in lieu of inheritance tax). A substantial part of the project involves a transformation of the environment in which the collections are kept to meet these requirements.

The Bodleian project has also presented an opportunity to adjust the library to suit evolving modes of scholarship, as well as addressing architectural concerns about the way in which the building relates to Broad Street with Hawksmoor's Clarendon Building and Wren's Sheldonian opposite, close to the Old Schools quadrangle at the very heart of the original university. The public face of the library and how it speaks to the city of Oxford can be redefined.

Reading rooms are central to the research library, and creating the right ambience in those rooms is vital. Functional matters need to addressed, such as the correct environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, light levels, acoustics). There needs to be sufficient desk space to spread out books, whether these are rare volumes ordered up from the collections or those commonly referred to from open access collections - which should be close to hand - as well as IT and data connections ergonomically arranged to suit the use of laptop computers. In a special collections library invigilation with good sight lines and security generally is a priority, as some recent high profile cases will attest. The seriousness of the study in this kind of environment is intense and often involves researchers in long periods of work. Whereas the modern library for undergraduates (and certainly public libraries) are tending to have more informal 'touch- down' types of spaces, an innovation for this kind of library is to create extensive break out spaces where readers can relax and interact, and where silence is not the rule. Nearby, new facilities for digital study on large high definition screens will take an increasingly significant role, both for the individual researcher and for group learning.

Providing good conditions for internationally mobile scholars in the competitive world of high level research has collateral benefits; at the Bodleian a suite of spaces to be known as 'The Centre for the Study of the Book' is proposed. Consisting of a series of modest cellular workspaces grouped around a central space, the centre will provide a space for visiting scholars to work intensively, relax and interact, promoting cross-disciplinary discourse. Seminars with students in secure new teaching spaces where materials from the special collections can be brought out and discussed are enabled.

The scope of the collections allows countless opportunities (such as significant literary anniversaries) to engage with the public through exhibitions and events. Co-ordination with the presence of eminent visiting scholars and literary figures enables the library to become a dynamic focus for activity and study, capable of trickle-down so that the public can benefit. After all, we all know that the Oxford University and Bodleian names that stand for academic excellence, and with a vicarious national pride we know that the collections must be extraordinary, but as a public we don't have much idea of what is actually in them, and how incredibly diverse, wonderful, fascinating and often stunningly beautiful they can be. By embracing a culture of openness in an institution opaque to the uninitiated, the University is bravely breaking down barriers and celebrating its collections in the public domain.

This piece originally appeared in the RIBA Journal in July 2009.