Today’s Library: More than just books

Libraries evolved as repositories for precious knowledge recorded in physical collections – first clay tablets and papyrus, and later parchments and paper. As repositories for books, university libraries prioritised the preservation and display of these physical specimens; large rooms lined by shelves filled with titles, closely guarded by librarians.

But accessing and approaching knowledge has shifted in the modern world, and knowledge is increasingly accessed through digital means.

While much has changed, from printed books to ebooks, card catalogues to online databases, and silent floors to collaborative spaces, the purpose of the library remains the same – to ensure students and staff have access to the resources and assistance they need to excel in their study and research.

As physical collections have become less of a requirement for study and research, the core function of the library has broadened to become a hub – for students and academics, and increasingly the wider community. Universities across Australia have embraced this change in different ways. Curtin University is unusual in having only one central library at its Perth campus in Bentley, rather than a series of faculty libraries, and as such the Library has been a central meeting place for students, staff and community members since opening. The University has taken the bold approach of relocating all the books from the floors to a high-density compactus storage facility in order to free up space to accommodate a larger range and number of learning spaces. The expansive floor plates now accommodate a spectrum of learning settings, from social learning on the lower floors to silent study areas on the upper floors.

Our refurbishment of Curtin University’s TL Robertson Library illustrates a model of potential industry significance. Curtin University has a tradition of being progressive and embracing technological innovations. The University has challenged the established view that visible books are essential to establishing a library ambience and behavioural cues to encourage people to be quiet.

Based on extensive stakeholder engagement and global research, Curtin has re-imagined the Library to reflect contemporary study needs, while maintaining its central role as a meeting place.

Repurposing old into new

Designed in the 1970s in the Brutalist style, the monolithic TL Robertson Library is at the heart of the University campus and, significantly, at the campus’ highest central point. It was also the campus’ only library when built in 1972, and was primarily designed to protect its valuable contents from sunlight, with masses of concrete, low ceilings and few windows – ideal for the preservation of books.

Our response was to demonstrate that a space like this could be reimagined and repurposed into a modern meeting place that celebrates the culture and stories of a diverse population, the local community, its people and social connections.

We worked with our international collaborator, Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL), a global leader in contemporary library design, whose highly functional and culturally responsive work includes one of the world’s largest libraries, Shanghai Library East, and Australia’s oldest public library, State Library Victoria.

From the outside, TL Robertson’s immense concrete box now has windows, and a simple palette of brick, concrete, weathering steel and glass that honours the original building’s Brutalist design ethos.

By embarking on an extensive consultation process, we invited the community to have their say. As a result, we reduced the Library’s borders, clarified existing entrances and reinstated a third, enhancing its permeability and connection to the campus. Tranquil and well-lit seating amidst landscaping provides further space and fosters a sense of belonging. Visiting librarians have commented on how successfully the design provides behavioural cues without heavily relying on signage, which has been minimised.

Reflecting diverse communities

By carefully rethinking the building’s interior into a new menu of settings, we have grown the floor area to more than 21,000 sqm of flexible and adaptable space for different people and groups. There are flexible teaching spaces, individual and group study areas, bookable study rooms and pods, exhibition space, a ‘Makerspace’ for creative activities and an AV-production room for content creators.

No longer required to support the weight of book stacks, the solid structure of the existing building was able to support the addition of a new level on the top floor – Level 7 – by relocating the building’s plant equipment from the roof and adding a new ‘Lantern’ function space, able to host events for up to 200 people.

Radically, and in response to the Library’s statistics showing a clear decline in physical loans, books have largely vanished from the floors. Instead, 7km of books are accessible through a click-and-collect compactus system, or digitally, with older books removed as part of a library network recycle system. While the general collection of books remains accessible through the central storage system, as the Library continues to evolve, spaces throughout the building can be fitted out to suit changing needs such as accommodating special collections of original documents, manuscripts and other physical items.

Now most of the Library is dedicated to light-filled connectivity and collaboration, with the amount of external glazing more than doubled to create an improved quality of space and connection with nature. The 3,200 seats now available are often all taken, and the numerous positive comments posted in the exhibition area demonstrate how well the refurbished building has been received.

Taking its place as a national landmark

The re-purposing of this monolithic landmark has also been a fantastic result for the environment – the building now has a 6-star Green Star design review certification and has allowed 2,000 square metres of additional space to be created without a blade of grass being disturbed.

Today, this building continues to deliver so much – it is a meeting place, yet also a place for study and research. The project celebrates people and place while foregoing the often-inevitable cost of reinvention that culminates in cutting into greenfield spaces, demolishing the existing structure or expanding the site’s envelope. Through creative design and directly responding to the local context, the Library continues to serve its community.

While we design for the future and seek to anticipate what tomorrow’s community may need, what we do know for certain – as demonstrated resoundingly by the events of recent years – is the importance of social connection. For our future education spaces, or any space at all, this model can serve as a way forward.

Did you enjoy this article?