The 20th LIBER LAG (Architecture Working Group) Seminar 2022: ‘Designing for Learning and Scholarship: A Challenge for Librarians, Architects, and All’
From the 27th to the 29th of April 2022, the LIBER LAG (Architecture Working Group) Seminar was held at the University of Luxembourg. This three-day hybrid event afforded librarians and architects the opportunity to meet and share ideas while reviewing talks and presentations on library buildings and proposed developments, accompanied by library tours. The landmark 20th edition of this event was delivered under the title ‘Designing for Learning and Scholarship: A Challenge for Librarians, Architects, and All’. Below you can read all about the event and its importance for librarians and architects.
Marie-Pierre Pausch, Chair of the LIBER LAG Working Group, opening the LIBER LAG Seminar
Where the librarian and the architect come together
LIBER’s LAG seminar is an event which brings together librarians and architects. In doing so, it takes a 360-degree look at libraries as physical spaces – from outside to inside.
The landscape of libraries has changed dramatically since the first edition of the seminar in 1976, but what has remained unchanged is the need for the bricks and mortar that can store information in an orderly manner, accessible to whoever enters.
The relationship between librarians and architects may not be immediately apparent, but for a library to efficiently serve the needs of its community, staff, and collections, a well-functioning building is essential. Ideally, this building provides suitable spaces for different forms of learning and service provision, equipped to store and preserve information, and meet the needs of the staff who manage the site. But we also hope for more from these buildings: we want them to inspire us.
Creating inspirational libraries suitable not only for the needs of today but for those of the next 50 years necessitates dialogue between librarians and architects. The event’s organiser Marie-Pierre Pausch (Head of Library, University of Luxembourg) opened the conference with this notion: “I wish for dialogue between librarians and architects because this is the key to success… I hope you will find inspiration here.” The inspiration came from presentations of different library projects and examples which are exhibited throughout the seminar. Diverse libraries are exhibited but what reoccurs consistently throughout the presentations: quiet zones, help desks, study spaces, and exam periods. Whatever your library budget, whatever the size of your institution, these are the common denominators for library staff.
The 2022 venue — Luxembourg Learning Centre, Belval Campus
After a two-year postponement due to the pandemic, the seminar took place at the University of Luxembourg’s Belval Campus, located south of the capital near Esch-sur-Alzette. Due to the nature of the seminar, the in-person aspect mattered because participants could experience learning spaces first-hand. For this reason, the event began by focusing on the Belval Campus itself: a former industrial area which was developed to breathe new life into a site left unused since the collapse of the steel industry in 1997. The focus here was firmly on the campus’s educational nucleus: the Luxembourg Learning Centre.
The university’s showcase library opened in 2018 and is exemplary of the wider character of the campus. The building is connected to a former warehouse belonging to the steelworks. Monumental industrial apparatus are still found within the library, towering over study spaces and students. Following an introduction from the planners, guided tours around the library were provided bringing the previous talks to life. Marie Pierre-Pausch commented that “when you visit the library, you won’t see the hours we spent discussing every minute detail,” yet once inside it was clear that a lot of time had gone into executing such an impressive and functional library building.
— Alan Carbery (@acarbery) April 27, 2022
Library projects covered
The library projects which were discussed at the seminar provided a glimpse of the diverse types of buildings that are used as libraries and the range of demands put on these sites.
Illustrative of this point are two examples which followed each other in the programme. First, the iconic Long Room of Trinity College Dublin’s library (which is currently under renovation) was presented by the project’s manager who discussed how this restoration would be approached. As a site, the Long Room has transcended that of a university library and is now a much-photographed attraction, exhibiting items from its collections and attracting tourists from around the world. This fame brings unique challenges for the building and the documents it protects. The management of a 16th-century century building, respecting its history and design, while simultaneously bringing it up to modern safety standards and ensuring that its prized collections remain protected, forms a major challenge to the team responsible for this immense task. Juxtaposed to the ambition and cultural significance of this project came a presentation about Paris’s Natural History Museum Library and its renovation efforts. This talk focused on interiors and furniture. Here a resourceful approach was documented to highlight how a limited budget is best used to re-purpose and transform an underused library. Images in the presentation showed a workforce of librarians with all hands on deck, repurposing office desks, and experimenting with projects to attract and engage new library patrons.
These two sessions acted to highlight the challenges of the other, albeit in different ways, each with problems you imagine the other does not envy. One renovation spends millions to make no obvious changes: preservation is key. Whereas the other works with a tight budget. The money that is spent is done for maximum impact in a resourceful manner, to alter the appearance and feel of the library. The contrast of these examples added to the diversity of the programme and highlighted what libraries can be and what librarians must contend with.
Amongst the range of libraries exhibited, they cumulatively demonstrated how a combination of factors determines how a library building functions. For example, the geographical and physical restrictions, the needs and intended use, and the budgetary restrictions.
Specifically, Delft University Library showcased how an iconic library evolves and is maintained to suit modern purposes and changing user needs 25 years after its completion. The Emily Wilding Davidson Building, Royal Holloway, University of London, focused on how design tried to respect the architecture of a historic campus during the planning process. And the Cantonal and University Library of Lausanne displayed the difficulties of renovating a library while maintaining it as an accessible working space for students. From this variety, the audience was able to easily find cases that applied to their institution, ready to inspire future changes to the physical make-up of their libraries.
— Ignasi Bonet-Arq (@I_Bonet_Archit) April 28, 2022
What is a library?
Discussing the library from an architectural starting point, as this conference does, provokes much bigger questions.
You are essentially asking: what should a library be? what is a library? The multiple library buildings on display and the variety of librarians and architects at the conference reveals there are different, contested, and changing answers to this question.
The library is more than just a place to store, index, and find books – that has been clear for some time. What else emerges is the idea that libraries should be service providers offering spaces for people to learn and come together and collaborate, for people to be quiet and for people to discuss, for events to take place, for discovery, and for inspiration. Increasingly, the term ‘urban living room’ is used to describe the library. This term lacks a concrete definition, but it encapsulates the multipurpose, sociality, and flexibility that is expected of a modern library. And beyond services, it alludes to a feeling of comfort and warmth.
For university libraries specifically, a takeaway from the seminar is that a library is increasingly a key tool to reduce barriers between university services, acting as a central node in a complex educational ecosystem that is a reference point for thousands of students. It is also true that libraries are often a showcase building, vital to a university’s brand. In this sense, libraries serve as connectors. And as an event, like libraries, the LIBER LAG seminar serves as a connector for librarians and architects, triggering conversations which go to the core of what libraries really are.
Note: This text is a shorter and adapted version of a summary from LIBER’s LAG seminar published in the Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France. All presentations from the event are available on this page.
Author and photographer: Oliver Blake