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Mid-Century libraries: obsolescence or opportunity?

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Angela Watson, AIAWhile the library’s importance to higher education has remained constant, its physical shape has changed dramatically over the course of the last century.

19th century academic libraries reflected the pedagogy and culture of the period: formal buildings with grand spaces and quiet, well-appointed reading rooms. By the middle of the 20th century these buildings faced a new challenge. Unable to respond to cultural shifts, rapid enrollment and collections growth, many of them were abandoned to other programs or demolished, making room for the new “library of the future.” These 20th century “state of the art” libraries were designed to the cutting-edge standards of their time, inward-looking structures with monolithic, precast concrete panel exteriors to protect books from sunlight and students from distraction. Today, most of these opaque and impenetrable facades have proved to be campus obstacles rather than connectors.

Fast forward to 2016, and again, we are discussing designing “the library of the future.” For many disciplines, intensive use of open-access print collections has declined. No longer a mid-century “book box,” today’s academic library needs to host programs and services that support teaching, learning, and digital scholarship. Growing enrollments and new populations place pressure on seating and collaboration space, and libraries are expected to be a hub for socialization and community connection. There is growing interest in making special collections visible and available for teaching, research, and outreach. The campus community expects infallible access to robust, ubiquitous power and technology, and mandates for more environmentally responsible, energy-efficient systems place further demands on aging infrastructure.

These needs are creating a demand to design a different type of library, with more space for people, less space for books, fewer formal spaces, and more that are sustainable, adaptable, and flexible. These demands are not well met by the monolithic mid-century libraries with their inward focus and solid walls. Their structure and infrastructure are often not easily modified and the desire of many institutions is not unlike the fate they saw for many 19th century libraries: demolition.

Is this really the right solution? Is there a better way to make these buildings not only great libraries once again, but also prime contributors to the campus fabric, connecting rather than dividing?
The answer lies with the design community. If we can find creative ways to introduce daylight and views into these solid walls, upgrade non-accessible circulation paths, reduce energy use, and find innovative infrastructure solutions, we can breathe new life into these obsolete structures. If we can punch openings for communication into concrete floors and roofs, thread inviting circulation paths through the building, and treat the building as a village with its squares, parks, cafes and shops, we can make them productive and vital elements of higher education going into the next century.

This is not only the sustainable solution but also one that allows campus architecture to evolve as part of a tapestry of buildings that mark the institution’s history without compromising their support of contemporary scholarship.

- Angela Watson

Angela Watson, AIA, is a principal at Shepley Bulfinch and a leader in the firm’s education practice. Her recent library work includes the new Alfred R. Goldstein Library at Ringling College of Art and Design, which is scheduled for completion later this year.

Mid-Century Library

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