Today, a public library is so much more than a mere repository for a physical collection. The staid institution marked by rows of dark stacks and a bespectacled librarian with a single digit poised mid-shush is being replaced with light-filled, dynamic spaces intended for a multitude of uses. Yes, there are still quiet areas for study and research; yes, there are still stacks of books and periodicals. But there are also coffee shops and cafés, play areas and computer labs, and community rooms for gatherings of all types. The evolution of print into digital media explains part of the library’s transformation—but not all of it. Cultural shifts in the way we work, learn, and play are also influencing the library’s physical design. As a result, more is being asked of this civic structure.
Take the Surrey City Centre Library designed by Bing Thom Architects that opened last year. Located in a major suburb outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, the library is the hub of a new downtown and the first in a series of planned civic buildings, including a new city hall. The library is meant to be a locus for the sprawling suburb and a place for its nearly 500,000 citizens to gather. “They decided the library would be a great institution to show that this is the center of town,” says Michael Heeney, a principal and executive director at Bing Thom Architects.
Within its 82,000 square feet, the Surrey City Centre Library boasts a large children’s library, more than 80 public computers, Wi-Fi, a coffee shop, and quiet rooms for individual work as well as meeting spaces for larger groups. The building uses the tight urban lot to its benefit, creating different scales of space that move from a grand entrance and reading room capable of hosting large events to rooms with lower-height ceilings for stacks and small, private study rooms. “As more people live downtown in smaller spaces and as real estate gets more expensive, the library is becoming this important space,” Heeney says. “If the library of the ’90s was all about books, the library of today is all about space.”
Bing Thom embraced a novel approach to glean the program for this library. Because the project was funded by government stimulus dollars, it needed to be completed in under 20 months (similar to the ambitious time caps placed on stimulus dollars in the U.S.). The architects couldn’t convene all the usual public meetings, so they took to social media: The designers engaged the public through social media and a blog to ask what people wanted from the library. The blog got up to 6,000 hits per month at the height of the design process, and the responses were illuminating: Some said they worked from home and would use the library as an office. Others home-schooled and needed a place to bring children for quiet study or tutoring. Some asked for flexible furniture. “People were totally into furniture,” Heeney says. (The interior is now outfitted in places with beanbag and hammock chairs and other mobile pieces.)
While the types of activities inside the library may be expanding, the size of the library is not. “The enormous central library is probably a thing of the past,” Heeney says. With a collaborative process of loaning resources between regional libraries, no single library must fulfill every need, he says. Also, smaller libraries embedded in communities are important to creating walkable neighborhoods. “I was talking to an older couple looking to retire, and within a 15-minute walk they wanted a grocery store and a library,” Heeney says.