Libraries and architecture

The devastating loss of the iconic Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art last week will continue to be felt across the art, architecture and library worlds for a long time. In addition to the many news articles about the fire and logistical plans for the future, there are lots of moving pieces about what the Mackintosh building and library meant to those who studied there, including artist Alison Watt. Search #MackLibMemories on Twitter to read more or to add your own.

The Mackintosh Library features in The Library: A World History by James W. P. Campbell (Author) and Will Pryce (Photographer), published by Thames and Hudson – a book that my colleague Donald Lickley has reviewed for an upcoming issue of the CILIP Update. The book focuses on the architectural history of the library. And Donald’s review (no spoilers here) has given me a completely shameless reason to write this blog. 

I can't claim to have seen two of the most beautiful libraries in the world on my recent holiday to south America, but I am always drawn to the library whenever I visit somewhere new. Of the two I visited, the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile in Santiago wins the prize for best building but its location on the Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins doesn't allow for a good look at it, with the pollution and smog from many lanes of traffic threatening to pour through the front door and the constant flow of pedestrians severely limiting loitering and admiring time. But it did have a very pretty little garden on one side where they had an old railway car as their mobile library. Extra points for style.

On the other side of the continent, the Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina in Buenos Aires can certainly claim the award for the better location, in the lovely barrio of Recoleta, with parks either side of it and plenty of space you could use to admire it…were it a nice building. An example of brutalist architecture, its history is intertwined with the changing political landscape of the country which lends it a bleak, run-down and, I felt, quite vulnerable air, despite its harsh exterior.

That these two libraries won’t feature on my top ten list is simply a personal opinion, not a learned architectural review. There are plenty that have appealed to me on my travels – from the Black Diamond in Copenhagen to the Biblioteca Provincial in Holguin, Cuba.

Libraries inspire and fuel the imagination, whether housed in an iconic waterfront building or in a run-down square in a socialist state. And it is the librarians who make it happen, regardless of location. As Duncan Chappell (Academic Liaison Librarian) at Glasgow School of Art said yesterday, “A true library is a community, not a building”. 

– Suzanne

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