By JR on Wednesday, July 27, 2011
You need peace and quiet to concentrate on reading -- but some "innovative" a**hole thinks otherwise
Think libraries should be quiet sanctuaries of solitude and study? Then plans for the State Library of NSW will come as a surprise.
As architect Paulo Macchia rests against an open staircase and explains his plans for the renovation of the State Library of NSW, two young women studying in the reading room below look up from their laptops with annoyed expressions.
They don't actually say "Quiet please!" but that's what they are thinking. After all, most of us have been indoctrinated with the notion that silence is sacred inside a library. If words are necessary, use them sparingly and only whispered.
So they might be surprised to hear what Macchia, from the NSW government Architect's Office, is describing. Over the next few months, workmen will transform the State Library for the first time since it was opened by the Queen on May 4, 1988, as a Bicentennial-year extension to the historic Mitchell Library.
The $4.2 million, two-stage renovation, which begins on Monday, will create, according to the NSW Arts Minister, George Souris, "a contemporary 21st-century cultural destination for NSW residents and visitors".
In real terms, that means more computer screens, better Wi-Fi access, more desk space, designated, bookable study rooms, more newspapers and general-interest magazines to browse, a larger cafe, a more prominent bookshop and improved access to the two public meeting spaces, the Metcalfe auditorium and the McDonald's room. Plus, far better use of natural light.
All laudable. But the renovation's biggest aim is to fundamentally change the library's public image, to show that a place of learning can also be a fun palace.
They're even building zones where library users are encouraged to talk to each other.
"As you look into the library now from Macquarie Street, you see an empty foyer," the acting state librarian, Noelle Nelson, says. "Then, as you look down, you see people working away, very studiously. That will change.
"There will be a buzz in the foyer, with the cafe and the bookshop much more to the forefront. People will be able to see the library as an accessible space and picture themselves in it.
"They'll feel encouraged to come in, sit on the casual lounges, read the newspapers, hook up their laptop, pick up the Wi-Fi, meet friends for a coffee …"
The makeover is a recognition that libraries have changed in the age of the worldwide web. It's an international phenomenon, Nelson says. "New technologies mean we have even more opportunities to make our collections and expertise available. Libraries are becoming centres of lifelong learning, cultural destinations, welcoming social spaces."
The first stage has to be completed before the end of September, in time for the annual HSC crush. It concentrates on the two lower floors of reference reading rooms. Stage two, beginning early next year, focuses on the ground-floor foyer area.
Market research, Nelson says, showed the library's interior layout and facilities were outdated. "Our clients' needs have changed since 1988. The current layout had passed its use-by date. We were overcrowded during peak periods, like the HSC. We didn't have enough computers. People were having to share desks."
After long consultation with the librarians, Macchia's redesign has ditched the conventional long library tables in favour of smaller and less formal desk configurations. Gone are the traditionally towering book shelves, to be replaced by lower, less visually intimidating cabinets.
Nelson says no books will be harmed, though more will be kept in storage in the library's massive subterranean stacks, available on request: "These days, people can go online with their requests so the books are available for them by the time they get to the library."
More dramatically, soundproof glass walls will divide the reference floors into a number of separate "rooms" with different requirements - and varying levels of acceptable noise. Essentially, the deeper you descend into the library, the more traditionally studious the surroundings will be.
"Study has changed," Nelson says. Today's students often like to work together in informal groups around their computers, exchanging information. The new layout allows them to do that while creating an inner sanctum where people who prefer to work in silence can do so undisturbed.
So, deep down, there will still be a cone of silence? A kind of "hush area"? "We're trying to get away from words like shush and hush," Nelson says. "They give the wrong image. We're creating zones so clients have a choice, positioning themselves according to their need to do so … And they may change spaces throughout the course of the day as they meet a friend for coffee, check their emails or go and see one of our exhibitions."