Power to the people

During last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival the Signet Library played host over two days to a private discussion among a distinguished panel of international experts about the future of library spaces. Organised by Theatrium Mundi, a cross discpilinary professional network based at the London School of Economics and New York University, the conversations were fascinating and participant ROBERT PIRRIE WS found they put changes at the Signet Library into a wider context.

The forum of experts assembled by the Edinburgh International Book Festival, whose Director Nick Barley joined the group, looked at the functional, design and economic challenges facing libraries in the 21st century. The panel was a mixture of commentators, academics, designers, commissioners and directors of library spaces. The main topics of conversation centred on the role of libraries in an urban context in the digital age, the architecture of library buildings and their interior design, including shelving by subject and catalogue. Chaired by Richard Sennett, distinguished sociologist, scholar, writer and urbanist, there was also discussion on the relationship between library spaces and the communities they serve.

Tony Marx, President and CEO of the New York Public Library (NYPL) in the Rose Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on New York's Fifth Avenue (picture © NYPL).

Tony Marx, President and CEO of the New York Public Library (NYPL) in the Rose Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on New York's Fifth Avenue (picture © NYPL).

Furthest to travel was Sergio Fajardo, mathematician turned politician and mayor from 2003 to 2007 of the municipality of Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia with a population of 2.2 million. Fajardo is currently the governor of Antioquia, the central north-western region of Colombia that includes Medellin. The city is where the concept of the parque biblioteca (library park) originated, an urban complex formed by a combination of a library building and surrounding green space for public use. These library parks are strategically located on the periphery of Medellin to address the need for cultural, education space and public services in less affluent neighbourhoods. This is an extension of a traditional library giving citizens from disadvantaged areas access to learning and recreational experiences, opening their imaginations to a world beyond the narrow horizons of their everyday lives and strengthening their sense of community. Richard Sennett spoke of his own experience of visiting one of the library parks, Parque Biblioteca Espana (Spain Library Park) and the pride he could see in the young boy who was assigned to show him round. Spain Library Park, in the Santo Domingo Savio neighbourhood of Medellin, part funded by the Spanish Agency for International Development and inaugurated on 24 March 2007 with a visit from the King and Queen of Spain, Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía. The park consists of three huge buildings designed to look like black stones standing high on a hillside above Medellin and reached by the Medellin Metrocable. Fajardo spoke eloquently and passionately of the immense pride of the people of Medellin for the Spain Library Park. The popularity of the library parks, and their role in improving conditions in the outer city neighbourhoods, has seen the concept adopted elsewhere in Latin America, such as, Rio de Janeiro’s Manguinhos Library Park.


Chief Executive Officer and President of the New York Public Library (NYPL), Tony Marx, had in common with the Colombian experience the ethos of a public library system dedicated to serving the people. There the similarities ended, as you would expect of New York as one of the world’s largest and most ethnically diverse cities. The history and scale of NYPL is extraordinary. NYPL has 88 neighbourhood branches, many dating from Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy at the turn of the 20th century, and four scholarly research centres. The system serves 17 million people annually. The collection is the second largest in the US (only the Library of Congress is bigger) and the fourth largest in the world. Also unique and emblematic of New York is the Beau Arts masterpiece on Fifth Avenue, the Central Research Library, now renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in recognition of the eponymous financier’s $100 million donation. Marx is a jovial and immensely likeable native New Yorker, a product of the Bronx High School of Science and Columbia University. His manner is typified by his first words on arriving at the Signet Library: “Not so shabby!”


Marx regaled the group with the story of his baptism of fire as the new CEO inheriting the controversial vision of Norman Foster’s architectural practice for a $300 million renovation of the landmark Fifth Avenue building. The proposal was unveiled in December 2012 and envisaged replacing seven levels of book stacks holding more than 3 million books from the research collection in favour of housing a circulating collection with 50-foothigh atrium windows overlooking Bryant Park at the back of the building. Foster’s plan was to create a new, high tech facility, complete with computers, technical wizardry for internet access and a range of digital adaptations. By July the following year a powerful and well-organised group of historians and preservationists raised a lawsuit condemning the “starchitect” plan to demolish the stacks and relocate the research books to New Jersey. They also filed an application to have the interior’s iconic Rose Main Reading Room “landmarked” in order to protect the book stacks supporting the room’s structural integrity. The fight was well and truly on in the full glare of publicity.

Marx was catapulted into this controversy, the man instantly identified with the project despite having nothing to do with its creation. Mayor Bill de Blasio initiated a review and slowly Marx lead a graceful U-turn to leave the books and stacks more or less alone. Marx described the abandonment of such a large public project as almost without precedent in the history of US public works. It had dawned on officialdom that not nearly enough engagement and consultation about what people wanted had been undertaken before the project had reached an advanced state of design. NYPL concluded that they would have to begin again and this time spend more time before design work started finding out what people really wanted from the building.


After a year of discussion and planning, NYPL selected Dutch architects, Mecanoo, founded by another member of the Book Festival panel. Francine Houben established Mecanoo (a play on Meccano as in the famous model construction kits) in 1984 in Delft, between Rotterdam to the south and The Hague to the north. The firm now has a staff of 160 professionals in 25 countries. Mecanoo describe themselves as “preoccupied not by a focus on form, but on process, consultation, context, urban scale and integrated sustainable design strategies, the practice creates culturally significant buildings with a human touch”. Houben herself says, “I am specialised in things I haven’t done before”. She is unusual in the male dominated world of international “celebrity” architects. She relates the story of bidding for a project only to be told by one of those involved that the committee was not keen on her appointment because it was assumed that an internationally recognised female architect must be a “diva”. When asked in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio 4 about what was different about being a female architect, Houben answered that she did not see herself in these terms and simply thought of herself as an architect. Talking about a project of theirs in Boston, the urbanist blogger Carrie Jacobs (www.curbed.com) wrote: “Mecanoo are genius practitioners of an approach that almost defines The Netherlands: the past, present, and future co-mingle in ways that are at once exhilarating and reassuring. The past isn’t bulldozed. It’s folded into the future.” Asked why Mecanoo had been chose, Chief library officer Mary Lee Kennedy of NYPL said: “I like their philosophy of the library: a library for the people. I think Francine is very focused on building a library for the community”. NYPL’s chief operating officer, Iris Weinshall, put it like this: “I think that what was particularly appealing for the committee was her holistic approach toward design and libraries”.

Mecanoo is working on NYPL’s Schwarzman building alongside the New York firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, whose renovation work includes Grand Central Terminal, Ellis Island, and New York City Hall. The plan is to create a modern library experience, expanding public space by approximately 42 percent. Currently vacant or under-utilised staff spaces will be transformed into expanded and improved facilities for researchers and writers, public space to introduce teenagers and young adults to the building and its treasures, and increased exhibition spaces. The project is being funded with city, state, and private money.

Houben’s landmark project in the UK is the strikingly modernist Library of Birmingham (LoB). Mecanoo describe LoB as “More than just a building, the Library of Birmingham is a People’s Palace, a centre for learning, information and culture that unites people of all ages and backgrounds”. Visitors move from one floor to the next through interconnected and overlapping rotundas that provide natural light and ventilation. Everchanging vistas unfold through the delicate ornamental exterior of interlocking circles, inspired by the tradition of metalwork in this former industrial city. There is a roof garden housing the Shakespeare Memorial Room from 1882. LoB has transformed the largest public square in the heart of Birmingham. At 35,000 m², the LoB welcomed over 2.7 million visitors in the first twelve months.

However, since opening in 2013, LoB has been beset by cutbacks and job losses, throwing into question its success. This was a theme of the panel discussion, a sign of the times, alongside the question of whether the future of libraries was in mega-projects like LoB.


Closer to home, economic pressures within central and local government in Scotland have led to a drive to combine libraries with other facilities, consolidating a number of functions under one roof. This need not be a bad thing and Amina Shah, CEO of the Scottish Library and Information Council gave the example of Springburn Library in Glasgow, a space she had found to be inspiring despite the fact that it is now co-located as part of Springburn Leisure centre where there is a gym and a swimming pool. The original Springburn Library was one of Andrew Carnegie’s, opened in 1906. The panel consensus was that library buildings ought to inspire, but not intimidate. There was also agreement about the important role of those working within libraries in providing a friendly, human welcome from the moment a visitor steps through the door.

The original Springburn Library, Glasgow (picture © The WS Society).

The original Springburn Library, Glasgow (picture © The WS Society).

This fascinating two-day panel discussion served to underline how the changes over the last ten years at the Signet Library are part of a global trend in the re-purposing (to use the jargon) and re-configuring of library spaces. Take the main entrance to the building. Ten years ago this was closed and unmanned, accessible only to lawyers who had paid £10 for a swipe card. This meant that the first experience of most visitors to the building was through the much more functional former west door entrance, a space now re-purposed as a servery for the Colonnades restaurant operation in the Lower Library salon. There was no human welcome for anyone at the main entrance. Today the main entrance has two ornamental trees outside and visitors are warmly welcomed at reception just inside the door. As soon as they are inside they enjoy the full neo-classical grandeur of the entrance lobby and the main stair. The atmosphere is grand but intimate and friendly at the same time. The majesty and authority of the law is everywhere – not least in the view through to Parliament Hall – but tempered by the warmth of the human touch of the staff. The Signet Library now combines a number of purposes under one roof. It is no longer solely for legal research in sepulchral silence. The up-to-date legal library is now located in the modern accommodation of the newly created West Library. It is on two levels, one to house the book stock and legal team, the other a quiet reading room. The Lower Library salon is now a place to meet, to talk, to work and to eat and drink. This may be business or social and both complement one another, with the alcove tables available for more confidential discussion. The Lower Library remains a library with the book shelves holding case report series and other collections too voluminous for the West Library. The Upper Library is home to a significant non-legal and antiquarian collection but affords stunning, authoritative and flexible space for conferences, receptions and dinners.


The changes have been incremental, evolutionary and sensitively managed. The re-purposing combines the variety of uses in harmony and synergy with one another. Most importantly of all, the public are now welcome to visit and enjoy the building throughout the week and at weekends. What was a grandiloquent statement of wealth and privilege when the Signet Library was completed in the early 19th century is now an inclusive, welcoming and calm oasis accessible to everyone. There remains one aspect that is unchanged: the Signet Library building continues to be a powerful symbol of the enduring values of the Writers to the Signet – excellence, permanence and integrity.