While the use of paper books might be diminishing, their traditional home - the library - is at the forefront of interior design.

Both public libraries and those within educational institutions are working to enter the digital age, enhance the user experience and create community spaces that offer more than just beanbags for reading and borrowing services.

Heriot-Watt University is already investing in building new libraries on its Dubai and Malaysia campuses and has a new strategic vision for its historic Edinburgh Campus library.

“Built in 1974, the Cameron Smail Library was a state-of-the-art development and has served as a model for many other academic libraries in Scotland over the years,” the university said in a statement. “Forty years on, a building designed primarily for the storage and circulation of paper-based resources is now experiencing very different demands – it is now expected to be a 24×7 study centre, a technology-enhanced learning facility, an advice and teaching hub, a café and social space, while also housing the staff who efficiently run it.”

The university also offered some stats which showed a change in usage patterns, noting that “…in 2013-2014 there were an average of seven book loans per full time student, compared with 130 electronic journal article downloads and 51 e-Book section requests.”

Today’s library still features a traditional book collection but the common dark cherry oak bookshelves and “gentleman’s cigar bar” brown hues are being replaced with lighter coloured storage and bright, ventilated spaces.

Desks are close to power sources and connectivity points for mobile technology, and free Wi-Fi is the norm.

Libraries are also providing a series of zoned areas to meet the needs of both the collaborative or quiet user. Even the kids are getting into the design action with colourful, engaging spaces with ottomans and comfy furniture to encourage reading time.

Light-filled atria and staircases are at the centre of new buildings. While historically, grand staircases were aesthetically stunning ways to get users from floor to floor, many modern libraries are creating staircases that double up as seating.

Floor to ceiling windows that look over green space or offer a coveted view are becoming commonplace.

Melbourne’s new Library at the Dock sits on the Docklands waterfront, offering beautiful views while achieving sustainable milestones; it is the country’s first public building built with cross-laminated timber and also the first to receive to a 6 Star Green Rating.

Library at the Dock Open Space

Library at the Dock Open Space

Design architects Clare Design note the three-storey library’s green credentials also include an indoor/outdoor ‘winter garden’ with an abundance of natural light and ventilation, artificial turf and operable walls and roof.

The beams and columns are recycled ironbark from an old Queensland wharf and bridge.

Speaking to The Age last June, Clare Design director Kerry Clare said it was crucial that the design offered generous spaces and fostered a sense of community.

“We had to keep in mind that technologies will advance, things will change and interests will emerge and the building really has to be a flexible envelope over a very long time,” she said.

The library’s architects on record, Hayball, added that the library offers more than reading.

“As well as a traditional library collection, it offers meeting, performance, exhibition and entertainment spaces, digital studios, children’s areas and a café, and in this sense, the building serves as a forum – a gathering space and place for exchanging information – fostering a strong sense of community,” the firm said on its website.

In Perth, a new state-of-the-art public library (the first major civic building built since the Perth Concert Hall nearly 40 years ago) is almost complete.

According to the City of Perth website, the library will span “3,500 square metres and showcase a range of features over seven levels including an exhibition space, collections, reading rooms, AV/multifunction rooms, master staircase, green wall, story telling zones plus virtual and digital resources.”

Perth’s Library will feature a café and a mix of spaces for quiet reflection or community gatherings.

City of Perth Library Vision Image: Kerry Hill Architects

City of Perth Library vision
Image: Kerry Hill Architects

In Canada, Snøhetta and DIALOG’s won a competition to design the new Calgary Public Library.

The design will “realise the city’s vision for a technologically advanced public space for innovation, research and collaboration at the intersection of Downtown Calgary and East Village.”

“Upon entering the library, visitors encounter a lobby awash with natural light,” the design information reads. “Your eye is drawn up through the sky lit atrium where clear visibility of the library’s public program and circulation along the atrium’s perimeter serve as a wayfinding strategy from the main entrance and on each floor.”

Plans to create a light-filled Calgary Public Library Image: Snøhetta

Plans to create a light-filled Calgary Public Library
Image: Snøhetta

Furthermore, it’s organised on a “spectrum” with public programs on the ground floors and quieter, focused study areas on the third and fourth floors.

The New York Public Library is also moving ahead with a plan to renovate its flagship Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue.

While the design remains intact for the time being, the library is working to deliver leading technology with free Wi-Fi connectivity and spaces for private or collaborative work or events.

Speaking to Ariana Huffington earlier this month, New York Public Library president and CEO Tony Marx said “libraries have never been used more,” noting that 90 per cent of Americans believe public libraries are a vital aspect of their communities.

“People are shocked by this: the New York Public Libraries together get about 40 million physical visits a year,” more than all the city’s museums and professional sporting events combined, he said. “The life of the mind is not nearly as threatened as popular culture would have us believe.”

The University of Queensland Libraries at St Lucia Campus recently conducted a survey of 1,505 students to determine their needs when it came to library usage. Many of their responses reiterated the new design focus of libraries.

“Students’ responses to the question of the relative importance of certain qualities for library spaces identified as most important ‘the library as quiet places,’ followed by ‘quick access to information’ (There is a quick access to information including printed and electronic materials) and ‘pleasant ambience’ (The library has a pleasant ambience to relax),” the results read.

Functional and comfortable furniture was also a priority and, despite the collaborative design focus of some libraries, many students viewed libraries as primarily a place to work quietly.

Some students pointed to the natural aesthetics of the library at Ispwich Campus, which features an indoor garden with a stream running through trees and plants.

“The beautiful, relaxed, happy, stress free environment at Ipswich library always helps me during times of stress. The trees block much of the noise too,” one student said.

Greenery at the University of Queensland's Ipswich Library

Greenery at the University of Queensland’s Ipswich Library

The study concludes with five recommendations to consider in library space development projects that other libraries could lean on:

  1. Examine design related strategies to control noise and create quiet spaces
  2. Address library furniture considerations
  3. Invest in the comfort, look and feel of the interior architecture
  4. Maximise choice of study spaces and closely examine specific requirements of every learning setting/space type in your library
  5. Conduct ongoing assessment of the quality of physical library spaces