This blog post is being written as I sit in the café of The Sir Duncan Rice Library (at The University of Aberdeen) after a day at the SCURL symposium “University Challenge: Transforming your library” (a very apt title considering the challenge we face with our own Main Library Redevelopment). It’s enjoyable to share the hubbub of students, academics and other visitors having conversations, sharing ideas and studying in a wide open space.The Sir Duncan Rice Library was somewhat ground-breaking for British university library design when it originally opened in 2012, so much so that its central atrium, which ascends seven floors is often the top choice of pictures when ‘library design’ is googled! – so for a Library Space Project Manager it’s an exciting place to be.
After landing at Aberdeen International Airport and taking the shuttle bus towards the city centre, I hopped off early, having spotted the Library’s distinctive cubic structure. I didn’t immediately grasp the Library’s exterior design concept nor did I understand how it complimented its surrounding buildings. Equally, it didn’t stand-out as being particularly radical in its design, considering it had picked up a number of prestigious architectural awards.
On entering its famed reception area and the imposing central atrium, I still had mixed feelings. There was no obvious colour scheme, the bare concrete walls didn’t seem to blend and the functional spaces (reception, book sorter room and café) didn’t gel. Having arrived early, the staff kindly allowed me to walk through the building which gave me a chance to look at the finer building-related aspects up close. As I moved through the floors, the emphasis on creating an effective balance between study spaces and books became increasingly apparent; neither of the two overpowered the other which created an atmosphere that was both relaxed and respectful. The interior layout was consistent and spacious yet the furniture not overly complicated or diverse. It was clear that the building had been designed with functionality and ease of use as its principal drivers.
I saw a wide variety of uncomplicated study spaces; from PC workstations to desks and chairs; all black and white, well-proportioned and evenly distributed. The linear book shelves segregated the space without dominating it and the gentle yet effective lighting, along with the comfortable temperature throughout, brought warmth to this huge building.
I met with the rest of my fellow visitors and we took a guided tour of the building. We were led to The Wolfson Reading Room which is a fantastic area in the lower ground of the building, providing privacy and seclusion to users of the facility from the busy upper floors. The Gallery on the ground floor was a real gem; open to the public and displaying different exhibitions throughout the year, the space was reminiscent of areas in The Whitworth or Manchester Art Gallery. We walked through the building and were shown the variety of group study areas including the ‘open pods’ which have been a huge success with students. The eastern walls of the sixth and seventh floors also offer users amazing views across the North Sea.
After the tour we spent the next few hours hearing talks from library colleagues across Scottish universities. Liam Fuller (Aberdeen Student Association, Education and Employability), talked us through the positive impact that The Sir Duncan Rice Library has had on the University’s student body (although there is a growing demand for more group study spaces). Wendy Pirie (Heriot-Watt University) and Val Clugston (NOMAD) discussed the user-centred development of their library and learning commons space project. NOMAD are design and innovation consultants who use non-traditional methods of engaging users in projects like library redevelopments so I was particularly interested in what she had to say.
Susan Ashworth (University Librarian, Glasgow University) then discussed Glasgow’s approach to continuous redevelopment of their library spaces. They are currently converting redundant basement spaces into modern, flexible learning areas. Diane Bruxvoort (University Librarian and Director, University of Aberdeen) rounded off the talks and outlined her journey at Aberdeen; having joined after The Sir Duncan Rice Library was opened. Diane talked about her vision for the future and made it clear that although transformation takes time, she was not afraid of confronting assumed norms. The Alan Gilbert Learning Commons was referred to on numerous occasions and in high regard, which made me very proud.
After the event I decided to tour King’s College, a five minute walk from the Library. Founded in 1495 as The University and King’s College of Aberdeen, it’s now an integral part of the University of Aberdeen. I asked a facility assistant (who was assessing a window) if I could look at some of the interiors. He duly obliged and guided me into the King’s College Chapel. With not another person in sight, an organ player started playing, as if offering me a private concert – it was a truly special moment.
I continued my walk through the neighbouring housing estate, past three high rise flats (with external cladding being installed), alongside the golf course and took a sharp left at Pittodrie Stadium (home of Aberdeen Football Club). Arriving at the seafront I watched in awe as the North Sea crashed against the coastline that straddles Scotland’s third largest city. I then walked up the mount next to Trinity Cemetery which, being at least equal in height to Pittodrie Stadium’s main stand, afforded me the view I needed to frame my thoughts about the Sir Duncan Rice Library.
The Sir Duncan Rice Library isn’t about its cubic design, or even its architecture. It neither stands out nor blends in to surrounding buildings. It doesn’t try to make a statement, because it doesn’t need to. Aberdeen is the Granite City. It’s said that the bricks often sparkle like silver due to their high mica content, but you won’t see this up close. From a distance, just like the evening clouds of Aberdeen or the waves of the North Sea, the Library becomes part of the environment and sparkles. Its external design reminds me of flowing oil, flattery toward the city’s other nickname ‘The Oil Capital of Europe’. The building is solid, functional and a real addition to the broader landscape of Aberdeen – a blend of earth, sky and sea. Opened in 2011, the Library could probably be classed as a teenager – well past its innocent baby years. Diane Bruxvoort admitted that it is starting to offer some challenges whilst showing where opportunities lie to make it even better. As she stated “the work doesn’t end when a building is finished… it’s only just begun.”
While waiting at a bus stop for my return trip to the airport, I got chatting with a student of the University. He was a friendly young man from Belgium and I explained the purpose of my visit. His first reply about the Sir Duncan Rice Library was that “it is amazing” and his enthusiasm for the building never waned. Regardless of anything that I experienced, critiqued or wrote in this blog, and secondary to any information from the library staff, his response is ultimately all that matters.
Mike Kelly, Library Space Project Manager