EARLSDON CARNEGIE COMMUNITY LIBRARY_ RE-IMAGINING THE SPACE TO ENGAGE NEW AUDIENCES
[AUTHOR ALAN DENYER/ owner - AWD RESTORATIONS)
The makeover proposal is basically about making good on your aspirations to re-position the facility as a 50% lending library / 50% community space, with a focus on broadening appeal to make the building more popular with a younger, diverse audience - generate new revenue opportunities - and add genuine cultural value to the community.
The two central themes are:-
giving the building back some of its original Edwardian architectural grandeur (IE. de-cluttering, restoring symmetry, introduction of a few classic signature focal pieces eg. in reception hall; bell glass pendant lamps (x 2) plus edwardian clocks; and Edwardian ‘tall boy’ mahogany chest of drawers - we can source these for you f.o.c).
creation of a new enlarged reading area, that doubles as an flexible event space
I’m paying particular attention to the front entrance and hallway, as this absolutely key for encouraging people into the building and making a positive first impression - ‘positioning’ their expectation for the rest of the visit. Elements that I think are quick wins here are restoring the front door, re-painting the white frames of the automatic inner doors (french grey), moving bookcases from elsewhere in the building into this area - and introducing new signage (we like what’s called ‘village’ font - it’s what I’ve used in the floorplan drawing - nice mix of retro modern).
Placing the library’s plentiful ‘good quality, secondhand books for sale’ selection in the front hall gives an opportunity to have something eye-catching in a prominent position - holding the promise of discovering a bargain. Visitors love this kind of thing, even if they aren’t always buying - it gets them in.
Re-positioning the reception desk centrally (slimmed down to c. 1/3rd of present dimensions) introduces symmetry, and de-clutters the visitors initial frame of reference. It’s also a great opportunity to meet ‘n greet people both on the way in, and on the way out (hello there - are you ok. is it your first visit. did you get what you came for etc). This is how successful shops and venues get feedback and build customer rapport - it also really helps with donations (more about that later).
You’ll notice I’m proposing (apart from in the hallway) bookcases are taken away from the room perimeters, and instead placed in equally spaced rows across the width of the main rooms. This helps with symmetry (which the human brain loves - two eyes, two ears etc - which is why you see it all the time used in set dressing) - but also transforms our perception of space, as the brain struggles to register dimension unless it can see a wall/floor boundary clearly. The present arrangement - with radiators boxed in throughout and bookshelves set forward so as to avoid obstructions at the rear - is very wasteful of space, doesn’t do much for aesthetics, and, is also hugely inefficient in terms of heating.
The new event / reading area is created by moving perimeter bookcases, and re-locating internet access terminals away to the sides (utilising a space saving long narrow breakfast bar arrangement instead of the existing tables (see example pic). I think this space would work well with reduced natural daylight (blinds to side windows and skylights) and subdued lighting - the benefit being that brightness can be dialled down on pc monitors, and also, digital media can be projected onto a central screen creating an engaging focal point in direct view of the main entrance. I’ve used this approach elsewhere to great effect (CET & Holyhead Studio basements), showing repeating slides of ‘old coventry’ - or showcasing the work of a new artist, photographer etc, or a short film - the possibilities are endless.
Increased automation of the core lending library should also be a priority - and I’m liking the new automated facility presently in the main library room. This however needs to be given more consideration in terms of proactive signage to encourage use - promoting benefits + desirability - and I propose the small ante-room to the right of the proposed screen be used as the new site for this (maybe accompanied by the photocopier, if it’s still deemed a useful asset).
The other major change I’m proposing is combining the office function with the staff-room so as to free up this space for a specialist reference section - maybe including local/coventry history, as I’d expect this content to be popular. This area, plus the interconnecting corridor, would be ideal for local history displays/photos etc - and also give more more prominence/better access to the push-bar fire exit (it’s the only alternative point of exit - so very important). Additionally, i recommend both toilets be given over for public use rather than present 1 public/1 staff only arrangement..
The areas in each of the children’s and main reference library rooms adjacent the alcove windows have been left clear in the new plan - as these are great for small workshop activity, colouring in etc, however, I think there’s an opportunity to better use the height of the rooms to better effect. My idea in this regard is the fixing up large inexpensive 6ftx3ft lightweight mdf display boards directly above each row of bookshelves. Again this would emphasise the grandeur, space and height of the rooms, and provide a splendid focal point for the (gallery style) showcasing of local artist, or photographers work.
The experience gained at the CET (and more recently, helping out at the Priory Visitor Centre) taught me that mono-themed attractions struggle to cut it in terms of visitor appeal - that’s why I’m advocating the new events area, projection screen and display boards so you’ve more ‘interest strands’ to draw people in. Folks today can indulge any cultural whim in a second by tapping a few keys on a smartphone - so, OK, they’re more clued up than ever before, but chances are, mentally they’ve moved on before thinking there’s maybe a physical ‘thing’ they could visit to turn that interest into an experience. If you want to cut through - and get on their radar - you’ll have to work hard giving them really compelling reasons to visit you.
If you aren’t that familiar with how over 6 months or so I morphed the CET from a ‘walk round the building’ mono experience (mainly appealing to ex-employees), into a vastly more popular ‘something for everyone’ curated multimedia mixed arts and heritage self guided tour - maybe think of Coventry’s Herbert, or the V&A (mixed art and history is what makes them both work - although neither uses the building much to dramatic effect).
I found (at the CET) what worked best was dressing the architecture (lighting/props/displays/signage) so that first and foremost you are appealing to a basic, universal interest almost everyone has, which is to explore something new - and wander round a distinctive, uplifting, unusual space. And this also works particularly well with social media - if you've a space that looks amazing on a photo, its 10 more likely to get shared/seen. Then, look at what will keep your visitors in the space/keep them coming back; we found that by adding in displays of old Coventry Telegraph artefacts, local artists work, and heritage displays that told part of the ‘Coventry story’, people were spending much longer in the building (and taking alot more photos, and having more conversations about what they were seeing) - but it’s also about getting them to have a real (emotional) connection with what’s there, and not think ‘nah - this is boring/or - ‘this isn’t for me’. There’s a subtle art to doing this; it’s a part of what (in the arts world at least) folks term ‘curation’ - and when you pitch this right, it links into a big new emerging trend presenting possibilities for venue owners.
What is it? Well, here are a couple of quotes I picked up recently from an article about ‘the future of museums’, compiled from interviews with curators from all over the world - hopefully they help make the point;
OK, a library isn’t a museum, but in a way it is a very similar experience. Lots of unique items a person might reasonably be expected to enjoy - just waiting on the shelves. But how to get them interested? Why not have a little chalk board that features a different book every day - and then write a short quirky review that sells it e.g. ‘ this one’s a great story about a girl who lost her father - and then gets really wet. it’s been loaned out 12 times this year!’.
That little short bit of text, on a chalk board, is a story, combined with an insight, or idea about how the world works. Get used to using this approach (with everything on display) and you’ll be guaranteed to get your visitor thinking - ‘hmm - that’s interesting.. ’. We did it all the time at the CET - and had non-arts people enjoying wacky arts, and non-history people excitedly sharing anecdotes about obscure Cov heritage stuff you’d have thought no-one would care two hoots about.
Finally - just a few words on the types of events you might want to think about hosting.
Here’s a quick list;
arts previews (events to launch exhibition or display)
small scale live music (there are 3 great synthesiser outfits i can recommend)
small theatre shows
specialist dj events (there are more and more small premises eg. cafes that are doing this)
open mic evenings (poetry etc)
byob events (bring your own beamer - basically folks projecting images/films onto the building or walls etc)
cov pride events
presentations (eg. city of culture always looking for venues to get message out to communty)
social events (private party/kids party)
food tasting events
Some as evening events, outside of normal opening hours - but others would work during the day while the library is in normal use. Generally speaking the way these work best is on a partnership model ie, giving the space away for free (or maybe a small fee to cover hassle factor) - on basis there’s no appearance fee - and that it brings new people into the space, gets the venue free publicity and provides social value by making local community feel connected/prideful.
There’s then the option of generating income by running a pop-up bar, using a temporary events notice - or even charging admission.
We tried to have a wide variety of events at the CET (organising 80 or so during our 12 months) - and run them on a free admission basis so as to remove the barriers that keep people sitting at home or playing safe with what they’ve done before. Finally, the emphasis should be on the user (ie, hiree) to run the space and manage everything - although we always had one volunteer on hand at the CET to oversee things (usually me!).