Australian public libraries by design

A/Prof Mary Carroll, School of Information and Communication Studies, Charles Sturt University.

This blog post is really a continuation of a previous post from December 2021 which discussed research into the establishment of early colonial library collections in Australia. This research looks at three elements of public libraries—their collection—their systems and– their space and decoration. This post will look explain why we should consider the public library as imagined and realised through its space and decoration.

Why is space and decoration important? Consideration of the spaces which hold library collections allows us to explore how these buildings both reflect and shape the mission imagined for a library and the ways in which the physical library in turn shaped the user.  Library architecture, as with other building types, can also provide us with a window into the relationship between government policy, international agendas, community expectations of their function and changes in attitudes and priorities over time (Healey and Darien-smith 2015 p. 275). Until the mid-nineteenth century Australian libraries usually occupied space within larger organisations—buildings occupied by government departments, church, or educational institutions—often with only a room or hall to accommodate the library.   It was the power of the library collection rather than the library space which was intended to inspire and have impact. The growth of libraries in the public sphere and particularly the notion of the public library in the mid-nineteenth century was to influence the growth of the purpose-built public library allowing librarians and architects to integrate the overall vision for the library into the space and decoration of the library to reflect and influence the community it served.

Once libraries are ‘purpose-built’ and their design and decoration considered and intentional they become an integral element in understanding the community’s notion of a library alongside its systems, collections and the profession who manage it.  In a short piece I wrote some time ago (2013) I called the development of our public libraries in Australia an ‘evolution not revolution’ and this perspectives to some extent explains my interest in library spaces. Like any other artifact, (and I consider libraries in their materiality, systems, space, and collections as living artifacts) (2013 p. 28), understanding the public library building and its antecedents can assist us in understanding the professional character and mission of librarianship, the communities in which the libraries were built and how they embody the vision and mission underpinning them. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on current library spaces and other professional practices in a deeply critical way and ask questions about motivation, influence, and dominant social and cultural imperative–to ask ourselves importantly and critically ‘how much has changed’?  Black et al in 2009 believed not since the Carnegie led flowering of public libraries had there been ‘so much interest in library buildings’ in the United Kingdom (p.2) but cautions the reader not to fall into the trap of believing the stereotype that ‘the historic library as unequivocally poorly conceived and alienating to the user’ (p. 5).  Australian public libraries over the last twenty years have experienced a similar ‘flowering’ and it is timely to consider and reflect upon the implications of this.  Black et al also argue that much contemporary UK library design has been based on the negative assumptions about previous library buildings without any supporting historical investigation or consideration. The same assessment can, undoubtably be applied to the Australian public library. To address some of these gaps I am hoping to continue work on analysing key library architectural documents from different periods in Australian library history to capture how architects, planners, librarians, and the community have imagined the library overtime.  It is hoped that this will provide a beginning to a more critical understanding of the forces shaping not just the past but the future of the Australian public library. 

Bates, Smart and McCutcheon Pty Ltd Public Library Museums & National Galleries of Victoria, Plan (nd) from the University of Melbourne Collection.   

Black, Alistair, Simon Pepper, Kaye Bagshaw (2009). Books, Buildings and Social Engineering: Early public libraries in Britain from past to present. Farnham Surrey, Ashgate.  

Carroll, Mary — “Library spaces and places: evolution not revolution” (2013) 34(6-7) INCITE: Magazine of the Australian Library and Information Association p.28.

Healey S, and Darian-Smith, K (2015) ‘Educational Spaces and the ‘Whole’ Child: A Spatial History of School Design, Pedagogy and the Modern Australian Nation’, History Compass 13(6) pp. 275-287.

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