Libraries Everywhere are Getting a Major Facelift
Victoria’s new James Bay branch is just the latest example of how library design is evolving.
Firstly, the collection: 12,000 new items in all, including books, audiobooks, graphic novels and various electronic media, all awaiting their first sign-out. They are the raison d’etre of any public library, but in this one, Victoria’s new James Bay branch (formally named sxʷeŋxʷəŋ təŋəxʷ, the Lekwungen name for the area), they keep company with laptop bars, bistro-style seating and a children’s area designed like a preschool classroom. Light is abundant, pouring in from the walls of windows, some two-storeys in height, as well as from the various modern pendant lights that hover above like clouds, swaying ever-so-slightly from air vents in the exposed, all-black ceiling.
Designed by CEI Architecture in partnership with Endall Elliot, with an interior by Kyla Bidgood and her team at Bidgood and Co., it is a decidedly modular, multi-purpose civic space that continues a steady march away from dim lighting, hushed voices and imposing reference desks. “Libraries used to be like grocery stores with aisles and aisles of books on shelves,” says Jennifer Windecker, the Greater Victoria Public Library’s director of public services. “Now, they’re the kitchens, the social spaces.”
Windecker points to Seattle’s Central Branch as an early adopter of the “kitchen” approach. Opened in 2004 and designed by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas, it gave equal weight to books and new forms of information, embracing multimedia, mixed-use spaces—even noise. On its main floor, there’s coffee available, a tourist-friendly shop benefitting the library and abundant, hotel lobby-like seating; the building’s steel-and-glass latticework throws diamond-shaped shadows over all of it. The Netherland’s DOK Library Concept Center in Delft offers another formative example and was completed around the same time, wedged into a historic building in the city square and once hailed as the world’s most modern library. Now, the competition for that title is fierce.
Last year, Austin opened its new Central Branch, a bold, Southwestern-inflected design that includes a concert venue, a demonstration kitchen for cooking classes and a rooftop garden that ups the ante on the traditional reading room (though the indoor reading room, with its pale blue Saarinen womb chairs is quite beautiful, too).
Though far more modest in scope and volume, the James Bay branch has a similar intention: to create a space where users will want to linger. It’s an internationally influenced idea, certainly, but Windecker emphasizes, also locally informed. It’s the only branch in town, for example, that has plein air easels to loan out for art projects and other creative endeavours, something the residents requested early on in the years-long planning process. (The branch will also be useful to passing tourists seeking water fountains and wifi; the library’s signal carries out into the shared rear courtyard). “It really is a space for everyone,” says Windecker.