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Reading Rooms, Photographs Of World Libraries

Library’s across the world and through the ages are looked at in these two books: The Library: A World History and Contemporary Library Architecture: A Planning and Design Guide

James Campbell and Will Pryce’s latest addition to their handsome Thames & Hudson series, incorporating Wood and Brick, and Campbell’s Building St Paul’s, adopts another large and visually enjoyable armchair subject. The Library: A World History aims to contain the entire history of library design in one volume, an ambition Campbell has apparently held since he was a student. Strangely, the publisher’s first promotional comment is to describe the illustrations as ‘flawless’. Indeed, they are numerous and of excellent quality printed on good paper (292 images on 320 pages).

The text is confidently divided to lead the reader step by step from the beginning of time to the present day with critical emphasis on key eras of development and with reference to wider sources of information. Bracketed by medieval and modern Asian examples, the ground is predominantly Western European with reference to 19th- and 20th-century America. The pace of information is challenging and the ambition to produce such an encyclopaedic work seems somewhat Victorian. However, Campbell manages to stay in the saddle and get through the curriculum with even and steady bulletins.

Reading Rooms 2

Li Xiaodong’s twig-clad Liyuan Library, located in a village near Beijing is a contemporary update on the scholarly solitude associated with traditional Chinese libraries


Admont Abbey Library, 1776. Admont, Austria

He praises Pevsner above all others and it is perhaps that overarching critical metabolism that he is limbering-up for. In line with previous Campbell and Pryce publications, the portrayal of the physical quality of the subject is of paramount importance. The dominance of illustrations means that the library typology is presented more as an artefact rather than an organism. In concert with a trend to saturate the reader with ravishing full-colour interiors it moves beyond other works − The Most Beautiful Libraries of the World (2003) and Höfer’s Libraries (2005) − by seeking to establish a higher-brow, more authoritative and comprehensive vantage point.

There’s no time to stop and ponder as we jump from 1560s China to 1560s Venice and then we are back in a more familiar groove of Western architectural history until near the end. What is perhaps inevitably lost in the pace and dazzling competence of visual presentation is time to reflect on the humane aspect of the typology, the fact that library history represents the development of the emancipation of knowledge.

There is necessarily limited time for reflection on the transfer of privilege, economy, power or democratisation. What is cultivated here is almost a sense of nostalgia for the lost monastic realm, for the value of knowledge to be increased through the embellishment of its physical embodiment. The book ends with an exquisite image of the twig-clad Liyuan Library in China, an aesthetic of silence and removal from the world. Its completeness and composure makes the book an excellent Christmas present.


The George Peabody Library, 1878. Baltimore, MD, United States of America


The Codrington Library, 1751 All Souls College. Oxford, United Kingdom


Bibliothèque Nationale, 1996. Paris, France

By contrast, Ken Worpole’s book is flexible, full of slightly flawed photographs and aimed squarely at the desktops of designers and procurers of library buildings. It approaches the subject as a design guide and, contrary to the thrust of contemporary dialogue on the subject, it asserts the positive development of library design as a growing phenomenon.

Addressing both public and academic buildings the focus is on the role of the library in society from the start. Establishing the semi-sacred role of libraries in the modern city, it continues with a balanced reading of contemporary sociological theory regarding the library as a ‘third place’. Again these notions are discussed in terms of both public and campus libraries. While a limited historic context is drawn, its purpose is to define the identity of the typology today.


Utrecht University Library, 2004. Utrecht, Netherlands


Communications and Media Centre, BTU Cottbus, 2004. Cottbus, Germany

The comprehensive sets of case studies show useful plans and consistent data outlining costs, procurement routes and key features of the brief. The emphasis of the information is pragmatic rather than descriptive. It discusses themes that have been repeated recently; the living room in the city, the partnered space. It also briefly develops an understanding of the way in which the designation of library spaces has altered. A chapter on post-occupancy evaluation raises valuable insights and observations which may be fed into the wisdom of library designers of the future − for example the use of the library at night, the visibility of access and the necessary provision of coffee with books.

In the heyday of the turn of 20th-century library building, architects, librarians and electrical engineers were regularly updated with international data on building performance. For some time, library architecture, with its responsibility to define cultural identity, has seemed to focus on uniqueness as its winning feature, pulling away from such shared wisdom. Worpole’s book takes a careful and critical path through the contemporary scene, identifying pitfalls, trends and successes. It succinctly brings up to date many aspects of what should be absorbed as shared knowledge. Above all, Worpole leaves the reader optimistic for the future of the library as a building type − a valuable boost in an era of regret. While cherishing the same subject, these two books are not comparable in ambition or intention but serve distinct and well conceived reading positions.


Authors: James WP Campbell, Ken Worpole
Publishers: Thames & Hudson, Routledge
Price: £48, £38

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