The Ultimate Book Storage Design List

In exciting book news: The 16th-century Voynich manuscript has been decoded! The mysterious text has been challenging scholars for over 100 years. For those that had “Women’s health textbook” in the pool: Congratulations! You are correct! This piece will conclude where a lot of the modern scholarship and conservation of this text occurred: Yale University’s The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The construction of which was approximately contemporaneous with the Voynich manuscript arriving into the its collection in 1969. So while I may pine for libraries to be temples of written knowledge; it’s also important to recognize the immense pressure on libraries to respond to shifting public expectations of what a library’s role in civic society should be. There are whole books in the architectural literature devoted to describing this shift, its causes, and its consequences, and therefore I don’t repeat them here, but rather turn to celebrate the best modern examples of its class.

LiYuan Library, China

Architect Li Xiaodong was inspired by Nature when he designed the Liyuan Library outside Beijing, and many of its architectural features have stuck with me over the years. In recent years, timber-framed architecture has been widely desired, but here we have an example of a timber-framed structure with no hint of brackets, and even the joinery is hard to spot. Having lived in Japan, I’m not very familiar with this style of timber framing’s history in China, I only know enough to spot it, and argue it takes more specialization than bracketed timber-framing styles. The interior space creatively uses different levels to define the different functional areas of the design. All of this is wrapped in glazing and then carefully faced with straight branches. The materials used in the project were found around the city which locally uses it as firewood, and is traditionally collected next to people’s houses. One function of the branch screen is to defuse and control sunlights’ entrance into the structure thereby turning it into the perfect light for reading (because high contrast areas are reduced). Having put so much effort into the quality of interior daylight, the structure surpasses many sustainability projects by committing to be unpowered. The library is happy closing at dusk, assuming voracious readers will simply continuing reading at home.

Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, Washington, US.

Rem KoolHaas outdid himself with the design of Seattle’s Central Public Library. The whole form’s proportions are eye-catching and modern but the interior layout definitely pushed the bounds of library design at the time, and was a huge cost-driver in the project. Rem KoolHaas and OMA worked hard on making the interior as programmatically efficient in possible. Though certain major uses are strongly differentiated in the plan, the approach to the multi-functional nature of each was comprehensively and sophisticatedly integrated into the design. There was a strong desire on the part of the design team to make each area as high-performance as possible. What was left in the budget just draped glazing over the interior-form leading to this eye-catching postmodern structure worthy of calling all to share in the the knowledge contained within.

Biblioteca José Vasconcelos, Mexico.

In 2006 when construction on the building began there was a strong commitment on behalf of the federal government that this building standout in the 21st century. That level of commitment bodes well delivering on good design. The over 400,000 sq. ft. library did have some construction defects which delayed its full opening until 2008, but with the obstacles of construction behind it, the design represents its meaning well, signaling to visitors the importance of what is being kept inside. What is so characteristic in the interior of the building is its airiness. Ample interior daylight and glass walkways contribute to this effect. How the interior fits together like a puzzle is an attractive quality of the structure because its a feature that really takes both commitment and expertise to pull off. Many firms would retreat to a simpler idea after having comprehended the extra work of coordinating all the puzzle-like details. But if one really wants to raise a structure that pushes the limits of the field forward — attracting visitors and clients alike with good design — these sort of architectural risks are a must.

Vennesla Library and Cultural Center, Norway

Parametric design is all the rage these days. While I find the rhythm of the style relaxing, as more and more parametrically styled projects go forward, to counter the dilution of quality, it's important pieces like this point out and celebrate well-executed examples of the technique. The building’s exterior hints at the parametric Glulam ribs inside, but settles on presenting a more restrained exterior to the street that is still distinctive compared to anything around it. Inside, Helen & Hard Architects used the ribs in creative ways to define separate functional areas. Great lighting design was integrated into the ribs which stands in a Nordic region where hours of daylight can be limited during certain parts of the year. Lastly, in executing the complex design with many custom features, the design team still found the motivation to raise the project’s sustainability game by using wood sourced from ecologically sustainable sources.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Saving the best for last, the SOM-designed Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has several design features that perfectly complement its function. It’s so important to celebrate risk-taking in architecture and here I love how the rare books are displayed inside. Even from the outside the building projects a vault-like appearance. Indeed, without knowing what jewels are contained within, it would not be incorrect to classify the exterior style as brutalist. However, everything in the design is aimed toward preserving and conserving the treasures inside. The specialized fire suppression system has lots of nerdy details, but its requirements ultimately drive a lot of the interior design choices. Also, the need to keep the books out of direct sunlight, and indeed limit long-term UV exposure, results in the strip of windows at the bottom of the structure creating a unique atmosphere inside. The interior is also lined with gold-veined marble which is a rare and unique building material. It’s perhaps a slightly unnecessary luxurious touch, but as someone who really loves books, this dedication to quality materials is welcomed. Overall, the structure is one of the best at expressing the importance of the rare books contained within.

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