• christinemackenzie

The evolution of the public library – from Frankston to Tilburg

In my time in the library field there have been special public librarians and libraries that have caused us to change our thinking and reassess what libraries can be. Here is a personal journey…

The first was in Frankston, Victoria, in 1979, where I started my public library career with Jennifer Borrell. The library was full of primary colours and it had an av collection with hundreds of music and spoken word cassette tapes for loan. All this was quite innovative at the time and it didn’t look like the other public libraries around. Pretty soon most libraries in Victoria were lending cassette tapes too, as well as decorating with bright soft furnishings.

The next one was the Towson branch of Baltimore County Public Library, where I worked for 6 months in 1990 on a job exchange. Director Charlie Robinson reigned supreme and had the radical idea of giving patrons what they wanted. He even wrote a book about it. Soon this idea didn’t seem so strange and others were doing it too.

Moving on to the early 2000s there was the revelation that was Library 10 in Helsinki, with the visionary Maija Berndtson. So innovative that people are still using the ideas that were first seen there.

The next wave came from Delft in the Netherlands, where Eppo van Nispen and his amazing staff including Erik Boekesteijn created DOK - a library that stretched the boundaries, with ideas of participation and experimentation, and value adding the collection. Taking kids on movie making weekends, going out to the world to tell the library story, providing a retail experience with book displays, a really good café – DOK really kicked off Library 2.0

And then another DOK - this one DOKK1 - the library everyone wants to see and be part of in Aarhus. Rolf Hapel pioneered using co design principles, engaging many partners, and providing flexible and appealing spaces where people can learn, read, or just be. An icon for the city, a tourist destination and a much-loved and appreciated community space, it too has redefined what a library can be.

And now I’ve seen a library that has taken these concepts even further. LocHal in Tilburg in The Netherlands had its official opening last weekend and I was lucky enough to visit it with my friend and colleague, Ton van Vlimmeren. It had been opened for 3 weeks, and on the Saturday of the official opening celebrations, 5,000 people came through the door. I was there on Sunday, and there were 1,800, so it must have been really busy on Saturday. The City provided the Library service, Bibliotheek Midden-Brabant, with an historic building, but not your normal hand me down - this was a railway locomotive workshop- a huge great shed with heavy duty cranes that were used to lift the locomotives to repair them. Other unique features are floors with the railway lines still there, massive steel beams, a lot of windows as well as an excellent position right next to the railway station.

The Director, Peter Kok, showed us around, he is justifiably proud of what has been achieved. It has been 10 years in the planning, 4 years since the architects were appointed and 2 years since construction began.

“The building’s design is the result of close collaboration between civic architects (lead architect), braaksma & roos architectenbureau (restoration), and inside outside/petra blaisse (interior concept and curtains). The interior design of the library, the various ‘laboratories’, the café and offices are by mecanoo, while the engineering consultancy arup advised on aspects such as sustainability, re-use and acoustic design.” (

A roll call of the best. The Mecanoo website has fabulous photos and a description of the project here

The space is generous - 11,000sqm altogether, of which the library has 6,500sqm, Seats2Meet (a commercial coworking space) has 2,500sqm and the other occupant is the cultural institutions Kunstloc and Brabant C. There are no obvious walls, Peter explained they didn’t want boxes in boxes. Huge curtains / screens are used to contain spaces and are able to be moved around to configure areas. A very special part of the building is the glass theatre. The Glass Dome from the ‘Beurs van Berlage’ - the historic building that houses the Amsterdam Conference Centre - was going to be demolished. The city of Tilburg bought the glass structure for one euro, and transported it to Tilburg where it has been used to create a glass auditorium with near perfect acoustics and space for 220 people.

The quality of the work is obvious - but the thought that has gone in to the way the spaces are programmed is what blew me away. Where this library really breaks new ground is with the 8 labs within the building. They are the DigiLab, GameLab, FutureLab, Mobile FoodLab, LearningLab, TimeLab, DialogueLab, and WordLab. These are spaces to share, to learn, to think, to talk, to imagine. Each of the labs has a dedicated staff member to program the space, build partnerships and deliver programs. The FutureLab is running a program for primary aged children, where they are designing a space ship to travel to Mars. The purpose is for them to create a better world when they get there, and then looking back at Earth, return home bringing the best of this new way of being. The FoodLab was offering a taste of insects (yes I did) to promote thinking about sustainable food production. The TimeLab is where local history comes to life - and where the local dialect is being preserved through the creation of a computer program that creates word pictures and uses a type font especially created for Tilburg.

What was obvious was that these labs just didn’t spring up from the new building. Like Aarhus, they have been planning, designing, prototyping these concepts in their old library, but now they are able to make them visible and more accessible. The staff I talked to are so excited to be working in this environment. And there are books. 150,000 of them all transported from the old library, displayed in a way to encourage browsing and serendipitous discovery, with a Book Street that runs right through the middle of the building.

So, I think that LocHal is the next big thing in public libraries. As Molly Meldrum* would say - Do yourself a favour, and go and see it. Or at least look at some of the websites I’ve listed where there is much more information. It is amazing!

*Australian pop culture icon

**photo: Miriam Godrie

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