Architecture

A new chapter for libraries: an interview with Andrew Nimmo

February 26, 2016

Revered for his contributions to public and educational design, Andrew Nimmo has a deep knowledge of the connection between learning, space, and technology. Nimmo gives his own take on the library of the future, and its relevance in the digital age.

Interview: Sara Kirby, photo courtesy lahznimmo.

Since establishing lahznimmo architects over 20 years ago, Andrew Nimmo has become highly regarded for his work. Particularly revered for his contributions within the public and educational sector, Nimmo has a deep knowledge when it comes to the connection between learning, space, and technology.

Lahznimmo Architects was the brains behind the innovative Main Library at the University of New South Wales – a project which took a library that had barely advanced since its construction in 1965/1977 and brought it into the 21st century through a series of stakeholder workshops. Along with Complete Urban, lahznimmo have since also worked on the Helensvale Library and CCYC on the Gold Coast, and are competing to design the community and civic space within the Parramatta Square renewal project, which also incorporates a “library of the future.”

So, with book stores around the world closing and people sourcing less information from physical books and more from the internet, where does this leave design of the humble library?

SK: What is the difference between the traditional library and “libraries of the future,” and what do these new libraries incorporate?

AN: A traditional library was basically originally a place to store books. The difference now is that it has shifted away from the book, and back to the person, so it’s now more about the experience of getting the information. If you think of the old library, you would have a table which people would sit around and have a very quiet discussion, or they’d be doing their own work by themselves in total silence. Now that’s shifted; people want libraries to be more active, so we now allow people to talk. Some people want to talk, some want to practise presentations, some are there partially socially – so now, you have to accommodate all those different groups. The building is currently more about the people who are accessing the library, rather than the collection itself.

The Helensvale Library incorporates a lot of things that are outside of the traditional library. It has a craft room, a performance theatre,  dance, 3D printing, a music studio. All sorts of events are brought together in and around the library. After construction, I was talking to the head librarian and asked her, “What are the boundaries to a library these days?” She replied that there is no boundary; anything that assists people with literacy is within the realm of the library. It’s becoming more of a general community centre, where you can go and be assisted with literacy, in comparison to the old model.

SK: How do you cater to that group/collaborative context while simultaniously catering for those who do still want to use the library as a quiet place to work alone?

AN: This is one of the critical areas and it is where many modern libraries get it wrong – it is all about zoning and choice. Some areas are zoned to be quiet, some active. Some for individuals, some for groups of different sizes. Typically a library will be more active at the entry and then become quieter as you move into the library.  However, it is not as simple as having groups in the active areas and individuals in the quiet areas.  Some groups want a quiet space to collaborate, while some individuals like being part of a busy active space, and some don’t really care because they are studying with earphones in.  The children’s area will probably be noisy, so it should be away from those wanting to read quietly or do study, but it also needs good supervision. So, it should be near where library staff will be.  If it is designed well, then this zoning will happen without signage and people will generally understand how they are to behave in response to their surroundings. Colour, texture, light levels and style of furniture all make it pretty clear if you are in a quiet or active space.

SK: In regards to design, what does this movement change for the overall architecture of the building?

The thing now is that the library is no longer contained, it should extend beyond the boundaries of the building. As you are walking past, you should feel as though you are within the library because you should be able to access the wireless system, the catalogue, and other information. A whole lot of things can be outside of the physical building, in a much more casual setting. You can pull activities that are normally inside the library and scatter them around the building so that people are interacting with the library, even when they are not meaning to. Releasing the space to the people is really what it’s all about.

Also, the things you thought were important five years ago suddenly have changed, and in five years time they will change again. So, the need for flexibility is very, very important. If you try to design things to be too specific, they end up becoming not very useful. The ability to be flexible – you still have to have a sense of order in the way things work – but you need to be able to imagine a space can be a number of things. For example, special media booths that are set up with equipment are quite useful now, but laptops are becoming more and more sophisticated, and so the library doesn’t really need to supply that equipment anymore. So the space needs to be adaptable and suddenly used for something else. If it’s too specific, you are pulling things down every few years.

SK: Do you think that we will see more of these kinds of libraries popping up in the future?

Definitely. Universities have been leading the charge with modern libraries, because they have had to respond to modern teaching methods, which involves much more collaborative teaching and learning – so the library has responded to that. Council libraries are now picking up on the fact that school kids and university students want to have somewhere to go after to school to study with their friends, and that’s the library.

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