When we think about public libraries, we think of stale stacks of books, students grumbling through wafts of paper and stern silence. Arguably the last bastion of ‘democratic space’, the public libraries remains one of the few forms of open space where aimlessness, for lack of a better word, is openly encouraged. Browsing through journals and novels is encouraged, not disdained. Increasingly multifaceted, interchangeable forums for public discourse, the modern public library has evolved from repositorial collection to a space that allows a direct connection between research and communal discourse.
The history of public libraries in Ireland is widely agreed to have sprung from Archbishop Marsh’s library, beside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Marsh, then the Anglican primate of Ireland, found the existing Trinity College Library elitist. The Archbishop said that, “No man, besides the Provost and Fellows is permitted to study there, unless carry’d up thither by one of them, who is bound to be present all the time the other stays in the library.” Costing £3,300 to build in 1703, the long tall stacks of Marsh’s library mostly served the free gentlemen of the time, due to penal laws, where 18th century decorum dictated access. When Marsh’s library was incorporated by an Act of Parliament called ‘An Act for Settling and Preserving a Public Library for Ever’ in 1707, the Protestant establishment, in part led by Jonathan Swift, objected to the notion of laymen having influence over a place of such consecrated importance. Marsh prevailed however, and in dedicating his own personal wealth to a public library which was free to use, Marsh established an alternative to the established pursuit of knowledge in Ireland – the notion of a space within which the public could gain access to information that they might never otherwise acquire. Through Carnegie libraries and onwards the idea of a free public library was firmly established.
The modern Irish library hopes to do more by taking on the role of place-makers. Amongst such exemplars are Carr Cotter & Naessens recently opened DLR Lexicon, and Box Architecture’s Ballyroan Library.
The Lexicon, a public library & cultural centre built for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in Dublin, is vast in scale (7000 m2) and expenditure (c.€35million), and was the subject of public outrage during construction. This outrage was in part caused by its size and cost, and partly due to the limited public perception of a library’s functionary abilities. Incorporating both the functions of typical public library, with history and reference, archival, repository and children sections, the Lexicon serves equally as a place-maker. Forming a long-needed link between the main shopping streets of Dún Laoghaire to its harbour, the Lexicon houses a dynamic multipurpose space fit for art and discussion, workshops, meeting rooms, and cafes, plus an exterior landscape which has reinvigorated the previously disorganised plaza on which it sits. Precast beams and stacked volumes frame spectacular views across Dublin bay where the community is not just allowed, but encouraged, to take their time and utilise the building as they see fit, whether it be reading on the grand staircase, discussing politics in the multi-purpose room or just to access Wifi and have a coffee within this spectacular building.
On a smaller scale, projects such as Ballyroan Library in south-west Dublin provide new community links and encourage public place-making. The dual-facade public library creates an internal public thoroughfare, through which the community can perform, exhibit, discuss and create culture. Information is again key, with internet and a formative reading room adjunct to this, along with a heritage resource, providing intimate study spaces hidden through a series of concrete fins. Outside of this again is a public plaza, sufficiently chaotic so as to provide contemplative space, yet distinctly organised to encourage a place for discussion and contact within the community.
Modern public libraries are rare amongst their spatial equals in terms of displaying a freedom from commerce and security limitations, and unique in providing a socially equitable forum wherein everyone who enters has an equal right of access. The role of the public library is can help shape our attitudes to culture, where production is as valid as consumption, and the right to knowledge for all allows for fresh collective thinking.