Library evolution

29 Nov 2023

6 min

As part of the design of new libraries, research work was carried out to explore the evolution of libraries through history, necessary to understand the mutation of the concept and meaning of the library and consequently of its spaces.

The analysis was conducted by reading the cultural mission, i.e. what the library offers, the organization, i.e. how knowledge is used and organized, and the layout, to understand the evolution of spaces in relation to historical events.

In the beginning it was Aristotle, according to Strabone, who founded a collection of books, and it was probably on the basis of his project that the Ptolemies of Egypt decided to build their great cultural institution: the Library of Alexandria.

The library was not regarded as a mere collection of texts, but as a fundamental tool for carrying out research and as a source of information, reflection, and elaboration of knowledge. A repository of knowledge that was, however, not open to the public, but only to a handful of people paid by the state, the result of the attempt to monopolise knowledge to control the cultural paths of the empire.

Over the centuries, great phenomena of economic and cultural change took place. For example, the economic and social development of the 12th century affected the spread of culture and writing and had great consequences on the evolution of books and cultural institutions. Here, the library plays a role of preservation and rarely of use. It is in fact with the late Baroque and 18th century library that an evolution becomes apparent that slowly leads it to open to the public, assuming an increasingly vital role. There is a need for a new organization of knowledge associated with different management and use. Here, knowledge is ‘classified’, it finds an order, albeit in its universality, because it is made for a vast public with different interests and needs. The library becomes the key to reading the world, and acquires a new active identity, of high civil and social value. In terms of layout, of which the Etienne-Louis Boullè in Paris is an example, the library-building sees the combination of the wall-system with the central plan typology, echoing the archaic forms of the Renaissance temple. Books are usually arranged in niches in the walls or in shelves arranged concentrically. Although this typology is well suited to the function it houses, a feature that further connotes it is the relationship it establishes with the surrounding buildings and spaces in the various contexts.

Subsequently, the increasing influence of the Enlightenment culture and changes in social and economic structures led to the definition of an architecture that became an interpreter of the ideals of the time

Bibliothèque du Roi, Etienne-Louis Boullè, Paris 1784

The 19th-20th century library model represents the “repository of memory”, basing itself on the treatise “Della costruzione e del regolamento di una pubblica universale biblioteca” (1826) by Leopoldo Della Santa, a watershed in the history of library architecture, in which he theorised its functional tripartition. The plan shows the large central reading room with adjacent spaces for conservation, offices and rare book collections and those for document processing. The scheme is used in projects for large libraries, but the tripartition is realised in full for the first time in the Sainte-Geneviéve library in Paris (1840-1850). In the Bibliothéque Nationale, he took up the theories and solutions tried out in Sainte-Geneviéve, organised not in section but in plan, and like Boullée derived from the existing courtyard two continuous rooms united by an arched glazed opening: the reading room and the library storerooms.

In today’s ‘information society’, the practices of writing and therefore reading, in contact with a whole new range of non-traditional and highly technological documents, have been strongly transformed. Consequently, the role of the library within its context is also transforming, increasing its awareness of the public and vice versa. It still plays a fundamental role, which leads it to broaden its specificities both in the field of services offered and in that of conservation, being confronted with new media and new types of documents and thus new demands from an increasingly numerous and varied public.

Federiciana Library, Fano, Mario Cucinella Architects – ©Visual by MCA Visual

However, the contemporary role of the library can no longer be considered only that of a repository for the preservation of knowledge, but performs a social, civic and pedagogical function that makes its spaces places of multiple functions: laboratory and information centre, knowledge infrastructure (a function it has always had) and social gathering place.

Different models of organization therefore develop:

  • “Digital library”, which is characterised by its “immateriality”, not having an actual physical space, consisting of one or more servers accessible on the network that store and make available digitised documents, regardless of the user’s location;
  • “e-library”, i.e. a digital library that has its counterpart in a physically existing institution, which digitises and makes its document resources available on the network.

Many of today’s ‘e-libraries’ are ‘hybrid’ libraries, i.e. places, which in the transition to digital, continue to integrate traditional library services with new services. Thus, not only do they provide networked services, but also multimedia information contained in various media is collected and stored within their space.

In the library architecture of the last decades, it is possible to trace some trends, invariants, and some possible evolutions. Models in which the building with its monumentality reaffirms the importance of its function are flanked by others in which instead its centrality within the urban fabric is asserted in an antithetical manner, with the opening to the outside world and the creation of an urban space of new sociality strongly interconnected with the surrounding context. In some cases, as the specific functions and different internal spaces increase, the library itself becomes a true urban microcosm, in which the typical elements of the city (squares, paths, etc.) are found.

From a design point of view, one strategy sees the volumetric breakdown of the building into autonomous bodies, each corresponding to a specific function, linked together by a network of paths or by the geometric composition of the different volumes, as in the Malmö library by Henning Larsens Tegnestue in which there is the juxtaposition of two buildings (one of which is an existing building) linked by a third central cylindrical volume which acts as an atrium.

This model is contrasted by another which instead sees the search for more compact forms, in which the overall scale of the building contributes to the control of all architectural and functional components. The library, although a “monolithic and compact element”, creates continuous connections with the surrounding context through pathways, the relationship of scale with the surroundings, the morphology of the interior spaces and the composition of the façades, which become elements of bioclimatic control and relationship with the voids and solids of the urban fabric.

Despite the similarities, each library will interpret the theme of the building in a different and in some cases opposing way, according to a more or less rigid functional subdivision or with a complex articulation of the parts, but the concept of the library as a place for relations and socialisation will be increasingly emphasised.

Kwame Nkrumah Presidential Library, Volta Lake, Ghana, Mario Cucinella Architects – ©Engram Studio

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