Read a good book lately?


I'm with Jorge Luis Borges: 'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.' And Flaubert, who 'read in order to live'. While Jane Austen declared there was 'no enjoyment like reading', Hemingway found 'no friend as loyal as a book', and Frank Zappa had 'so many books, so little time'. Ray Bradbury reckoned that 'without libraries we have no past and no future', and Virginia Woolf 'ransacked public libraries and found them full of sunken treasure'. Germaine Greer saw the library as 'a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity' and Kurt Vonnegut praised librarians who 'staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove books from our shelves, and have refused to reveal to the thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles' when he declared 'the country I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries'. Even Keith Richards admitted: 'When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.' For once, he was showing his age: both the church and the library have far less pull today.

The British Library

The British Library was the largest public building to be built in Britain in the 20th century. Designed by Colin St John Wood, its £147m cost in 1998 now seems cheap Photo credit: Paul Grundy

If only the whole world was organised along the lines of the Dewey System rather than Google's commercial interests we might possibly find everything we are looking for a great deal more easily. Libraries are places where you learn what teachers were afraid to teach you; they are full of ideas, perhaps the most dangerous and powerful of weapons. There are probably more than a million books in print and around 120,000 new titles published every year. In the 1950s there were 10,000. The average Waterstones stocks 30,000 books. Its Piccadilly branch is the largest bookshop in Europe, with more than 200,000 volumes in its stock.

And yet one in six working adults in London cannot read. One in three children in London does not own a book. One in three in certain parts of London start secondary school with a reading age of between seven and nine. Four in 10 businesses in the capital say their employees have poor literacy skills that have a negative impact on their business.

Books have changed. The emerging world of e-books has changed the mathematics of publishing. The industry seems set on a path to self-destruction as its business model is dismantled via the internet. Its conglomerates link arms to withstand the onslaught of Amazon, Apple, and Google as it learns the hard way that disintermediation is a term that no longer applies only to others. Public corporations driven by stock markets and the unrelenting pressure of quarterly profit figures have acquired swathes of small publishers that were once the bulk of the industry.

The British Library

The Royal Copenhagen Library, designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, was completed in 1999 Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

There are very short books available electronically for the price of a coffee. From precious to throwaway, respect for books has changed, and the major challenge is one's choice of tablet on which to read them. Choice is everything as tablet manufacturers try to hook clients up for life in order to get them to buy other products, like books. The range of options can be confusing and complicated even if you are someone who lives and breathes tech. The proliferation of products is the sign of a mature market. And this one has matured at a very young age. The embarrassingly tacky skeuomorphic iPad design aesthetic with its wood veneer bookshelf, once termed visual masturbation by a senior UI designer at Apple, and 'lipstick on a pig', has downgraded the user-experience ever since the iPad was launched. Even Jonathan Ive is not completely satisfied with Apple's output. When asked about skeuomorphic design features such as that bookshelf and the fake leather texture and stitching in iOS and OS X he visibly winced in a way that the interviewer interpreted as a 'gesture of sympathy'.

That 2.5 million Mills & Boon novels were pulped and used for the top layer of asphalt on the M6 may seem to many not just a reminder that reading in electronic times is different, but a final nail in the coffin of the printed book. In a digital book world content is searchable, findable and shareable, everything, and every computerised hacked-up book, is tagged, indexed, and referenced to other sites. It is a bag of words, 'link juice' in the parlance of 'content discovery platforms', 'knowledge that YOU feel good about finishing'. A line has been crossed. To these people books are software. So what about good writing? You may well ask.

From 1860 until 1961 WH Smith had a subscription library service attached to its shops. One could deposit a borrowed book at any one of some 500 bookstalls around the country. One of its High Street competitors used design as a selling point even in the 19th century. Florence Boot, of Boots the Chemist family, instigated a subscription library in 1898 marketed on the basis of 'clean books and beautifully fitted libraries' usually located above the chemist shops. In the Twenties and Thirties Boots had more than 500,000 subscribers, by the Forties they topped a million, and the company bought books at a rate of 1,250,000 a year, which gave it considerable clout with publishers. Boots Booklovers' Library lasted until 1965.

he new Library of Birmingham, at 35,000 sq m the largest in Europe Photo credit: Christian Richters

The new Library of Birmingham, at 35,000 sq m the largest in Europe Photo credit: Christian Richters

Bookshops have been changing fundamentally for 20 years since Waterstones opened its megastores in Sauchiehall Street and then Piccadilly, followed hard on its heels by Borders invading the UK for an ultimately futile decade, sustained by the creation of the mass-market hardback at the expense of the small independent shops. Bookshops would never be the same again. Book selling was tough, bookshops were dying and, quite possibly, the end of written culture was nigh before these megastores with lecture halls and internet rooms began to appear as part of a new relax-and- read approach.

They answered the needs of book lovers unimpressed by mail-order book clubs and large-scale discount deals in supermarkets. The rest of the industry appeared to simply curl up and prepared to die. But ever since Hatchards opened its doors in Piccadilly in 1797 the trade has survived each crisis of confidence and devised its own renaissance; Armageddon of the book has always been unavoidably detained.

Waterstones' founder Tim Waterstone considers the publishing industry today is like Humpty Dumpty: it has been broken and can never be put back together again. Having unconsciously signed the death warrants of many independent booksellers when they gave mail-order houses savagely larger discounts than they gave bookshops, publishers are desperately trying to mend matters as they fight to control price-setting of e-books. Yet demise by discounting has taken hold and bookshops continue to disappear.

Therein lies an opportunity for local libraries, which some have been quick to grab. Lost in this fog of change, the paradigm shift of the electronic revolution has impacted not just books, but on bookshops, and now on libraries, from Rotterdam to Aberdeen, from Whitechapel to Washington.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen designed the 9,000 sq m Chaucer Buchanan District Centre Library in Sheffield

Schmidt Hammer Lassen designed the 9,000 sq m Chaucer Buchanan District Centre Library in Sheffield, preparing the way for the practice to win the competition to design the Mediascape facility in Denmark Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

My renewed interest in libraries was sparked by a new one that has opened in Spijkenisse, on the edge of Rotterdam and not far from the docks. It's called the Book Mountain, designed by Fokke Moerel of MVRDV, who previously worked for OMA. With around 60 staff, MVRDV was set up in 1993 and has quite a track record: the Dutch pavilion at World Expo, the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam, Mirador housing in Madrid, boutique shopping in Tokyo, an office campus near Munich, a cultural plaza in China, and now, a new project in the UK.

The Book Mountain holds over 55,000 books, and is worth a look. A spiralling network of stairs and walkways form a 480m-long route through five levels of bookshelves that stretch for nearly two miles. All the shelving and much of the furniture is made from recycled plastic bags and flowerpots, but it looks and feels like wood. The building is a naturally ventilated glass box with a total surface area of 9,300 sq m, cost £26m and took three years to build and fit-out and six years of planning and consultation.

There is an environmental education centre, meeting rooms, auditorium, offices, chess club, some retail, and a cafe at the peak with panoramic views. A book-lover's delight, it nevertheless has been criticised for allowing direct sunlight on the books, a criticism deflected by the acknowledgement that wear and tear from borrowing means the books only have a four-year lifespan.

The building forms the centrepiece of a new library district with 42 social housing units, also designed by MVRDV, car parking and open public space adjacent to the market square and a historic church. With a local rate of illiteracy at 10 per cent the new library has been designed as 'an advertisement for reading'. The overall shape and form of the project references the town's agricultural past as it grows towards being a new eco-city.

The library at Aberdeen University Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

The library at Aberdeen University Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

A dizzying stack of shelving rising to the heavens is also to be found in Aberdeen where the new University library by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, completed in 2011, has registered an 87 per cent increase in student registrations since its completion (see FX October 2012). The 15,500 sq m, £34m building forms one side of a new public square, linking the university with the city. Having previously been responsible for the Royal Library in Copenhagen completed in 1999, and the 9,000 sq m Chaucer Buchanan District Centre Library in Sheffield completed in 2011, the architecture practice has since won an international competition to design the Urban Mediaspace, a banal name for the largest public library in Scandinavia (35,600 sq m) to be built in Aarhus, Denmark. The budget is £195m and completion is expected next year. Another social hub, like Spijkenisse, it will be part of the regeneration of the city's old docks and its cultural focal point. SHL says it will be a 'large heptagonal slice [that] hovers over a glazed prism resting on a square of ice-flake- shaped stairs fanning out to the edge of the sea'. We shall see.

With the first visuals now available of Foster's 9,300 sq m overhaul of the Carrère & Hastings beaux arts 1911 masterpiece that is the New York Public Library flagship on 5th Avenue, and due for completion in 2018, a different kind of criticism was only encouraged. Scholars and writers with little faith in Foster believed it might both cripple scholarship and become a 'glorified Starbucks', especially when the scheme's unveiling was repeatedly delayed last year and the library was less than forthcoming in its explanations.

That the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that the library was 'about to undertake its own destruction' did not help matters. She wrote that 'you don't update a masterpiece'. Having begun her career arguing passionately in 1963 against the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, she was nothing if not consistent. Caring as ever about standards in public design, she railed against the library's redevelopment, heaping scorn on the scheme in a lacerating critique.

The £34m building has seen an 87 per cent rise in student registrations since it opened in 2011 Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

The £34m building has seen an 87 per cent rise in student registrations since it opened in 2011 Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

Closing two branches of the library, consolidating operations, uniting the lending and reference sections, installing state-of-the-art storage facilities, all within a clever piece of real estate dealing that could net the library zillions to be spent on more books and more staff, the ingenuity of the scheme becomes apparent and starts to foil the public-relations offensive waged against the scheme. It has nevertheless taken four years to get to the point at which the design ideas have been published and, with the original building gutted and a shopping gallery inserted into the heart of a sublime cultural institution, the critics' views that it is heading in the direction of a suburban mall, complete with spacious atrium and curvy staircase, are understandable - and at a cost of £224m.

Should a much-loved building be trashed in order to deliver the unifying vision of the trustees; did they 'run the numbers' over all the options; have they chosen the right site from the three at their disposal? Indeed, have they commissioned the right designer? As reading habits change, so do demographics, and technology impacts everything, it raises yet again the question: what do we want of a library today?

Libraries are serious places but, as Will Alsop showed at Peckham, that does not inhibit style and wit. Enter the libraries rechristened Idea Stores in the UK. Idea Store: the name conjures up think tanks or literary salons but are in fact a Blairite- Orwellian package deal. As the word library may begin to disappear from our vocabulary, the Idea Store was conceived as a place that would draw in a new audience by grabbing its attention through design and a range of new services, places that could offer a wide range of adult learning courses, together with extensive activities and events programmes, careers support, meeting areas, crèches, free internet access and cafes.

Launched in 1999 by Chris Smith, Labour's minister of culture, the idea was first championed by Tower Hamlets, which has opened five in the previous decade as part of its lifelong-learning strategy. Aside from all the gobbledegook the Idea Stores are very good at delivering traditional library services, plus DVDs and CDs to rent and e-books to loan to their members, something that initially caused great concern to authors and booksellers alike, while attracting the attention of the media across Europe.

Plans for Mediaspace, at 35,600 sq m the largest public library in Scandinavia Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

Plans for Mediaspace, at 35,600 sq m the largest public library in Scandinavia Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer LassenArchitecture

Design has played a significant part in creating accessible and attractive spaces for the diverse range of activities housed in these new venues. The Idea Store in Bow was designed by Bisset Adams, at Canary Wharf by Dearle & Henderson, with both Whitechapel and Chrisp Street designed by David Adjaye. The Whitechapel branch replaced a building from 1892, a refuge for generations of free thinkers known as the 'university of the ghetto' because of the diverse community it had served (mathematician and scientist Jacob Bronowski learned English there.)

The concept at first sounded excruciating - a monument to trendy rebranding - but overall the Idea Stores have succeeded; the new image has garnered new users, luring kids away from computer games to the world of books, upping visitor numbers by 400 per cent on their predecessors that were visited by just 18 per cent of the population.

Much of the thinking behind this is now on view in the USA. The Francis Gregory Library and the William O Lockridge/Bellevue Library are both new buildings by Adjaye Associates, opened in 2011 and 2012 respectively and serving two of the 24 neighbourhoods in Washington DC. Both cost £8m and are approximately 2,000 sq m in size. The Gregory has a chequered facade of timber and glass, a woodland pavilion in the Fort Davis Park that reflects its striking setting. The Bellevue - a rather brutalist cluster of forms in concrete with a glazed skin and striking timber fins - has been inserted into a dramatically sloping site to act as a beacon for community activities.

As librarians reinvent themselves and adapt their collections and services based on the demands of their customers, so they are beginning to fill a void created by the loss of bookshops. At the heart of many a community, the library is gradually being reinvented to secure its place in society as more than just a place to get access to the internet, but as a gathering place for civic and cultural engagement, and a trusted place for preserving culture. It is far more than simply storytelling one morning a week in small market towns, or bookmobiles.

It is being designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen and has a budget of £195m Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

It is being designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen and has a budget of £195m Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

Now we have libraries as digital learning labs, as community publishing centres, mini-conference centres, locations for technology training programmes. They are studious places, quiet places, places to be stimulated, places for contemplation, repositories of knowledge, places to exchange ideas. It should come as no surprise that libraries are doing more educational work than ever before. Faced with the need to compete for shrinking municipal finances, libraries are changing to prove their value to taxpayers as local political ramifications get thrown into the blender along with the joy of discovering books.

Ever since the British Library by Colin St John Wilson was unveiled in 1998 - the largest public building to be built in Britain in the 20th century - controversy over library spending has escalated. For various governments it cost too much, and so the project was curtailed as budget cuts were imposed, yet at £147m it now seems almost cheap; for architects its red brick cladding was feeble and lacked courage as they brayed resentment; for the Prince of Wales it resembled a secret police academy.

Wilson looked as though he could not win. But he did. The 37 years from the award of the brief to completion of the last reading room he referred to as 'the 30 years war' as he worked through changes to the building's location, size, three full designs, and funding. He came through it and, in an echo of MVRDV, spoke of 'a magic mountain of all the knowledge of the world'.

With more than 150 million items, 14 million books, and 186 miles of shelving, it is an inspiring place. Inside it is a revelation, and a fine place to study, a place for calm contemplation. It works. Extravagant and impressive, we had to wait until 2006 for a similarly rich and restrained 'shrine to the soul of a literate nation' - Chipperfield's Museum of Modern Literature that rubs shoulders with the National Schiller Museum at Marbach am Neckar in Germany, a rather specialised library housing original manuscripts, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize.

 Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookstore is in a 1935 Grade I listed building, reworked by Brian McManus/BDG McCall

Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe's largest bookstore is in a 1935 Grade I listed building, reworked by Brian McManus/BDG McCall

At a lecture given on behalf of the Reading Agency, author Jeanette Winterson waxed lyrical about a youth spent in the Accrington Public Library, a place for her of refuge and inspiration built in 1907 for the working classes with money from the Carnegie Foundation. That library today 'has fewer books, the children's library has been closed, computers are everywhere, and the place functions as a community centre with books - the assumption being that if books are disappearing then why not libraries.' I'm with writer Sara Sheridan: 'They should be taking bonuses from bankers, not library books from schoolchildren. What kind of society are we building?'

Civilised nations build libraries, lands that have lost their souls close them down. Carnegie paid for 660 libraries in the UK and 1,500 in the USA. For him, 'A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.' The Library Act of 1850 allowed local authorities to spend a penny in the pound on libraries. Now maybe more than ever, they are the anchors of many communities and neighbourhoods.

Now, the UK's libraries cost around £1bn a year to run, and are generally put into a pot labelled 'libraries, leisure and culture', lumping books with sports centres.

Once everyone's university everywhere, a library's cost is presented to taxpayers today as an invidious choice between rubbish collection or books. As to the cost: Walter Cronkite, for 19 years the CBS Evening News anchor, had it about right when he said: 'Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.'

Waterstones Norwich, designed by Dreambox Studio

Waterstones Norwich, designed by Dreambox Studio

As author Seth Godin pointed out in his contribution to The Library Book: 'Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house', hence books were shared and libraries created as 'warehouses for books worth sharing'. They became places to go for entertainment and education, for fun and encyclopaedias, places to become better informed, more thoughtful, and productive members of a civil society. That was then. Today, amateur (and, sadly sometimes, not-so amateur) research is conducted on poor websites like, in my view, Wikipedia because it is cheaper and easier than going into town to the library. When you can store a thousand books on a tablet, we have left Gutenberg a long, long way behind. Books are no longer scarce or worth warehousing. 'Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data,' says Godin.

So if we have to face the fact that we need new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a new kind of world, where can we look? Books are changing, so why not libraries?

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