In days gone by, much of the role and function of public libraries throughout Australia involved reading and borrowing hard copy books.

Walk into what will be the newly redeveloped State Library of Victoria after an $88.1 million renovation is finished in 2020, however, and you will see a new art gallery, a new children’s quarter with multiple-level play areas and a new quarter dedicated to functions and events. Two entrance areas will be transformed into light-filled ‘welcome zones.’ This includes the Russell Street entrance, which has been closed for more than a decade but which will be reopened and will feature a café, retail and collaborative space.

Courtesy of three new reading areas, traditional book lovers will not miss out. One such area will be dedicated to newspaper and family history reading. Another, the now fairly dark Ian Potter Room, will be a light-filled reading centre by day and a dining, function and event area during evenings.

The Victorian State Library is not alone in being transformed. In Sydney, a $15 million renovation of the Mitchell building at the NSW State Library will see new galleries, a new learning centre, a rooftop restaurant/function centre and a subterranean auditorium. In Western Australia, the new Perth Library has a children’s level, a 14-metre green wall and a new café on a rooftop terrace.

Libraries, in short, still have books at their centre but have expanded to become more.

Sue McKerracher, chief executive officer of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA), said the role of libraries is growing in two areas.

First, libraries are being used as community spaces. Many now feature meeting rooms and other facilities to enable people to gather for programs and activities other than reading.

Beyond that, they are also digital spaces with free wi-fi and public access terminals.

McKerracher says contemporary library users come in multiple forms.

A growing number of parents are bringing in very young children for story time. This helps to introduce children to reading and to equip them with skills such as languages which are important when they reach school.

In addition, with more families living in apartments, an increasing number of school children use libraries as quiet spaces for homework.

Moving on to adults, more people are using libraries for public facilities such as free wi-fi access points and tech rooms full of computers. This includes job-seekers, those needing to complete government forms online and those conducting research. It often includes people who lack access to technology in their workplace or home (often lower income households) along with those who rarely use PCs or the internet.

Next, libraries are used by community groups as well as by governments for co-location of services. In terms of the former, groups who use libraries as meeting spaces include those dedicated to reading, writing, knitting and quilting, public speaking, art, English language learning and more.

Government agencies are also using library spaces to deliver programs and services. At the Craigieburn Library in Melbourne’s north, the Australian Tax Office runs a free program to assist those who earn less than $60,000 to complete their tax return.

Beyond that, libraries are being used for innovation and collaboration. The aforementioned redevelopment of the Victorian State Library will include a $2 million Start Space for emerging entrepreneurs with free access to resources, services, programs and mentors. In the Adelaide suburb of Hallet Cove, a dedicated business hub includes meeting rooms, conference facilities, a business library with special online databases, training and workshops for small business, networking opportunities and broadband internet.

None of this, however, detracts from what is still the core business of libraries: books. Whilst the popularity of physical reference books and encyclopedias is waning, McKerracher says that of other books remains strong. E-books may be becoming more common, but hard copy books still make up around 95 per cent of most libraries’ borrowings. With more people living in apartments, libraries are growing in their popularity as reading spaces.

In respect of reference materials, McKerracher says libraries are shifting away from printed books and encyclopedias and toward paid electronic databases which go beyond Google searches and involve curated and authentic sources.

To respond to all this, McKerracher says library design is evolving.

First, libraries are increasingly forming a centrepoint for community development. Toward this end, she says the built form of many is changing to create a warm and welcoming environment. There are also a growing number of community spaces. Several libraries, she said, have community kitchens.

As part of this, councils are looking to libraries to showcase sustainability credentials. Many aim for six-star ratings. Woollahra Library in Sydney’s Double Bay has a vertical garden and greenery all around the building. The Perth Library referred to above has green space and a tree on the roof around which children sit for story-telling.

With many older people living in older homes, McKerracher says thermal comfort is important as these people come to libraries on cold or hot days to read, participate in programs or activities, such as completing jigsaw puzzles.

Also critical are ‘maker’ spaces. These include spaces for 3D printers, media labs where people can make their own music or places where people can engage in activities such as coding and robotics.

On this note, McKerracher says more people are bringing their own devices and using the library to connect to public wi-fi. As this happens, she says demand for public access computers may eventually subside.

For now, however, these are still needed for those who do not have private access to personal computers. Much as libraries in the past served a ‘sharing’ function for books which may have been expensive for individuals to own, they are now also a place in which technology is being shared by those unable to afford personal computers and home internet.

Finally, to cater for a diverse range of uses, McKerracher says multi-purpose spaces are needed. One way, she said, is through shelving which is on wheels rather than fixed into position, and thus able to be brought forward or pushed back as needed.

Georges Rich, senior architect at architectural practice Liffler Simes, which was behind the design for the Rockdale Library in Sydney that earned a high commendation at the ALIA awards in 2017, says modern libraries have several functions.

Whilst physical reference books have largely been superseded, libraries they remain a centralised location for information sharing and enlightenment. In an increasingly commercial world, libraries stand out as a place for gathering and community. As homes become constrained, libraries are a quiet place of refuge.

Regarding design, Rich says libraries are an opportunity for architectural expression and to create a positive space in which people feel good. Speaking of his firm’s approach at Rockdale, Rich says the strategy adopted integrated with and built upon the local context and surrounds. Situated immediately adjacent to town hall, the new library complemented the red brick façade of its neighbour with a modern red terracotta wall.

Being slightly larger than the town hall, the new library has expanded the impact of the precinct and made it more recognisable. A wavy shape which permeates many of the building’s interior elements reflects the suburb’s character and proximity to the water.

This, Rich says, is important as architecture should reflect the place and context in which it is situated.

On positive space, he says several trends are emerging.

One is vertical stacking. At Rockdale, Rich says the three-storey layout delivers a space which opens out to visitors upon entry.  Such an arrangement also helps to deliver greater penetration of natural light, easier navigation and more ready compartmentalisation of uses.

This approach is being used to create multi-purpose spaces on several projects around the country. At the Woollahra Library referred to above, a multi-storey floor plan separates activities into ‘zones’ which cater for different age groups, purposes and noise levels. On the ground floor, the traditional ‘shush’ has given way to screams of delight as children play, read and do arts and crafts.

As well, Rich says natural materials such as timber are being used to create a warmer feel throughout exterior and interior spaces.

Around Australia, the role and function of libraries is changing.

In many ways, library design strategies are evolving to accommodate this.