March 6, 2023

Students reimagine future of academic library through architectural design

UCalgary library collaborates with School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape in work-integrated learning studio
Urban Rotate
Urban Rotate. Armaghan Divanei

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘library’? The place your parents took you to borrow new books? The place where your math tutor tried to explain algebra? Or perhaps the place you go to print?

UCalgary’s Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL) is a campus hub — both for the university library system and for UCalgary students. Walk through the building between September and April and you’ll find it's bursting with people — meeting in workrooms, typing away at computers, lining up for the printers, grabbing a coffee at Good Earth or collecting a book from one of the Holds kiosks.

TFDL’s shiny glass doors opened more than a decade ago, in 2011. Despite being one of the world’s most advanced academic libraries at the time, a lot has changed about the way the building is used. With many educational materials available online, the need to access physical collections has decreased. Demand for study spaces and workrooms has increased. And library services and workshops are now delivered digitally as well as in person.

These changes got James Murphy thinking about what the next decade might hold for the TFDL and academic libraries everywhere. Murphy, architecture and science librarian with UCalgary’s Libraries and Cultural Resources (LCR), raised the possibility of an experiential learning collaboration with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) — to consider how architecture and design might maximize the academic library’s capacity to respond to dynamic demands.

The future of academic libraries

This past fall, Murphy and sessional lecturer Matthew Parker, MEDes’15, MArch’12, BSc’09, co-taught a work-integrated learning research studio in architecture. Overdue: A Library Without Books challenged students to speculate about the future of academic libraries, using UCalgary’s Gallagher and Business libraries as case studies. Students were tasked with proposing design interventions that address the libraries’ shifting identities and programmatic potential.

Parker and Murphy put together a series of assignments provoking students to create flexible, responsive designs. Through critical research, guest lectures and group discussions, students learned about academic libraries’ challenges and opportunities. They studied built projects to understand the way space was designed and why. They toured libraries throughout Calgary, including the world-famous Central Library.

Together, the instructors and students wrestled with the future of libraries as a place for production and sharing of information and knowledge.

“The studio was really about exploring architecture’s ability to place-make within a changing landscape,” observes Parker. “It was a way to re-engage the student body with the library, with the idea of library through student work. In some ways, the students were the clients.”

Murphy agrees: “The TFDL has played a role in advancing what academic libraries look like around the world. Just over a decade since its opening, we are continuing to push that progression, for TFDL and all of our campus library spaces. Students have been, and will continue to be, in these conversations. This experiential learning collaboration is a key part of pushing this dialogue and exploration.”

Students worked together to imagine design solutions that could address the library of the future’s varied needs, including:

  • Recreating the service desk as a space of dialogue
  • Storefronting curated collections or student projects to promote discovery
  • Strategically advancing decolonial and inclusive equity efforts
  • Integrating digital technology to display and explore collections

For the final public presentations, students shared 10 design interventions intended to aid architects and librarians tasked with future academic library redesign.

Leeanne Morrow, associate university librarian, attended the final presentations. With or without physical books, “libraries are a place of dialogue and learning,” she observes, “and these designs speak to that.”

Libraries and Cultural Resources is poised to partner with faculties interested in delivering experiential learning in their courses. For more information about a possible partnership, contact Leeanne Morrow. This is the first of a two-part series.