Books, buildings and big data 

Professor Bill Sherman, director of the Warburg Institute, introduces a cluster of essays on the future of libraries.

The library is dead, long live the library. At once in vogue and under threat, libraries are under pressure as never before.

Here in Britain, budget cuts in local government and new investment in digital resources have led to the widespread reduction of library services. CIPFA’s 2019 survey found that nearly 20 per cent of Britain’s public libraries had closed since 2010, thanks to a 40 per cent drop in salaried librarians. UK Research and Innovation’s recent Landscape Analysis of the UK’s research infrastructure, for its part, sees book-stacks giving way to digital databases, while libraries are mentioned only twice in the 168-page companion report – and then only in connection with ‘preserving heritage.’

And yet, well into the age of the Kindle, interest in physical books shows no sign of waning. Moreover, dramatic new libraries by leading architects have served as research centres, public hubs and even tourist attractions in countries as diverse as Canada, Qatar and China. Here at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, our libraries are flourishing, and there are major capital transformation projects underway at my own institute as well as the university’s flagship library in Senate House.

The long read

‘De-silting’ libraries – releasing space to future-proof for the digital age

Elizabeth Flower, an associate at Haworth Tompkins, the architectural practice working on the ‘Warburg Renaissance’ project, explains what goes into designing a library today.

Which library projects has your practice worked on? How do they fit into your overall portfolio of projects?

The refurbishment of The London Library is one of our best-known projects. Founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, it is the world’s largest independent lending library, with over a million books located in a complex amalgam of six Grade II listed buildings in St James’s Square. Much like the Warburg Institute, the London Library has a unique and extraordinary atmosphere that we were cautious not to disrupt through new intervention. We focused on identifying opportunities for radical modernisation without threatening the delicate character of the building or changing its unique appeal beloved by members and staff. Through an analysis of the library, its identity, its capacity and future needs, we developed proposals to extend its facilities and upgrade the existing accommodation while improving the circulation and accessibility.

More recently we have worked with Lambeth Archives to create a new storage space designed to the latest British standards, alongside a public search room and education space. This new relocated archive will improve accessibility and will ensure that their collection reaches a wider, more diverse audience. This project is currently under construction so watch this space.

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The Talking Humanities blog is curated by the School of Advanced Study, University of London.