January 7, 2013

Is this the world’s “most awesome library”?


That depends on whether you’re the type of person who agrees that bionic librarians, chaise lounges and the ability to converse at an above-whisper volume is preferable to the hushed, green lamp, bookshelf environment that’s been the norm for the last century. This February, the students and faculty of North Carolina State University will officially unveil their preference when the new James B. Hunt Library in Raleigh celebrates its grand opening.

More than six years in the making, and designed by Snøhetta (the firm behind New York’s 9/11 Memorial), the library is garnering much praise from media and architecture firms alike for its innovative use of technology and a layout that encourages student interaction and collaboration.

The AP reports:

1.5 million books are stored in more than 18,000 metal bins, retrievable by robots when a student requests one.

The book robot, known as a bookBot … slides between rows of bins 50 feet deep and 120 feet high. A staffer files a student’s request for a book on a computer, and the robot locates the right bin, pulls it out and leaves the bin in front of the staffer, who locates the right book and takes it to the student.

To save room, the books are stored by size, not another filing system. And the system does save space, taking up about one-ninth of the room needed to store 1.5 million books on shelves.

When students look for a book, however, they can see it on a virtual shelf as they would under the Library of Congress system. But they also can refine the search by other parameters — for peer-reviewed material, for example — and the virtual shelf will reconfigure itself to those refinements.

More than robots fetching books (how ironic!), the library’s real leap into the future gains focus when looking at the space’s floor plan, which seems to find inspiration in the Google/Facebook/Twitter type of offices currently employing an “open” and “fun” environment that’s supposedly conducive to brainstorming and collaboration. To wit, there are

100 areas for collaborative study; walls made of whiteboards; a traditional library area with about 40,000 books on shelves; and a snack bar on the first floor.

And yes, food and drink are allowed here. As is talking.

The more than 20 styles of funky chairs, including a sort of continuous chaise lounge, caught the eye of Jennifer Leary, a first-year doctoral student in textiles from San Francisco. The layout is conducive to studying, she said.

“As a student, when you come into a library, you kind of want to find your space,” she said. “And all the variety gives you freedom to think, ‘OK, do I want to be in a rigid chair today or more laid back? Do I want to be near the window? What kind of view do I want to see?’

Such developments signal a change in expectations. Rather than quiet places of study, surrounded by rows and rows of books, the library of the future houses books in closed stacks and tends to be a place where ideas are conceived and shared, becoming much more like a laboratory, where inspiration arrives as much from discussion as words written on paper.

Open offices and libraries work for some, not others. When it comes to whether these spaces actually increase creativity and synchronize workflow, the jury is still out. But one thing is for sure, colleges and universities increase their appeal when showing off shiny, technologically advanced libraries to potential students — and the James B. Hunt Library is not just a gift for students, it’s an investment on the part of the taxpayers of North Carolina, who contributed $115 million to the 220,000-square-foot-building.

So far it’s been a wise investment, at least according to real estate and architecture site Curbed.com, which says “Raleigh, N.C., has seen the future … [the James B. Hunt Library] may even be enough to reseat MVRDV’s Book Mountain as the world’s most awesome library.”

You can see more for yourself by taking this video tour:


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.