vol. 25 no. 1, March, 2020

Book Reviews

Hille, R. Thomas. The new public library: design innovation for the twenty-first century. New York, London: Routledge, 2019. 456 p, 560 colour ill. ISBN 978-1-138-32670-2. £55.99

I like to look at big colourful albums with high quality photographs when they conveniently lie in front of me on a big table. This is how I am browsing now through The new public library while writing this review.

The first feature that attracts one’s attention is the size and the quality of the paper, print, and illustrations. There are also meticulously drawn plans of the buildings as one can expect browsing through the book carefully designed by an architect, such as the author of this book Thomas R. Hille. Any reader will notice the text last and most probably not many will read it. After all, there are 560 high quality illustrations in the book, so the text should be secondary. And to some extent it is the case, as the author drives his narrative through the images of library buildings and technical drawings. In most cases, the text explains the illustrations and draws attention to the elements of the architecture or interior or sometimes to the features of construction that the author finds important in each case. However, I would recommend anyone who may be attracted to browse through this volume to pay closer attention to the text as well. The author makes a fair attempt and succeeds quite well in explaining how changing library functions and ways of work as well as the tools and methods of this work have affected library design and aesthetics.

Second, it is important to draw attention to the fact that the book is devoted to the American public library buildings, with several exceptions mainly made for European libraries. More exceptions are made to the type of the library than geography of the buildings, so, we find academic and research libraries among the public ones if they are open to the wide public or in cases when they have inspired the new public library design.

Despite the title emphasizing the novelty in library design in the twenty-first century, the time frame of the book is spanning a much longer historical period. The book consists of two parts. Part I: Precedents includes examples of library buildings from the Roman era (Library of Celsus) and middle ages to the 1980s, which are grouped in eight chapters. Part II: Projects occupies two thirds of the book and presents a diversity of the public libraries built over the last 25 years. Instead of being presented in chronological order as in the first part, the author arranges the projects according to the public library types and served communities: central municipal and regional, urban branch, suburban branch, collocated libraries.

The exception is made in the chapter 13 presenting “Libraries in Northern Europe”. I must say that I was somewhat surprised by this chapter, which mainly presents libraries from the UK and the Netherlands with one from Norway and one from Finland. Though I admit that technically the author is right, but for a European mind Northern Europe consists of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland. On the other hand, if the Netherlands are there, why Belgium and Germany are missing, not to speak of other continental states at least those with the coastal line on the Baltic sea. However, the choice of the material depends not only on the wishes of the author, but in this case, on the possibilities to visit certain sites and countries. So, my disorientation was caused more by the title of the chapter than by its content.

But… The author also suggests that though public library design has been prompted by the development of the European library architecture, the USA architectural thought is heading its modern development. I am quite sure that many architects from my Northern Europe may disagree with such implication, as the development of modern library design and innovative approaches that I have seen in this book as innovation of the 21st century have been implemented in their projects from the second half of the 20th century all over the world as they were winning quite a significant amount of competitions to build prestigious libraries.

Despite the wish to have a fairer presentation of European library architecture, I have appreciated the overall conceptual approach and wide representation of public library buildings in the book. In the photographs of the buildings’ exterior and interior, the author has caught the particular features of the constructions and their surroundings, but also the functionality and convenience of the spaces. This attention to the library nature and the essence of its service, as well as their change in time was the most interesting for me. The author starts with pointing out this relation between the institution and the building from the Introduction and follows it through each chapter (see for example, the description of Seattle Central Library or Northgate Library and Community Centre). It is not equally expressed in each description, but always presented in one way or another.

I was also impressed by the fact that each library building, regardless of its size, gets enough presentation space. In the first part, it is as a rule two page-spreads per library, and in the second modern library part – three page-spreads per library. This provides an opportunity for an interested reader to note and explore the library in the surrounding contexts of natural and human-created environment. It also allows possibility to present the technical drawings and this part may be of interest to many library planners and architects.

I would recommend this book to the librarians engaged in negotiations with architects about new library buildings or re-constructions of the old ones for good ideas and examples of possibilities. But it may also be a good addition to the collections of albums and illustrated books in libraries. I am quite sure that neither the author, nor the book need recommendation for the main audience in the field of architecture. I guess they will know Hille's earlier works.

Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
March, 2020

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2020). Review of: Hille, R. Thomas. The new public library: design innovation for the twenty-first century. New York, London: Routledge, 2019. Information Research, 24(4), review no. R682 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs682.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.