'We don't do public libraries like we used to': Attitudes to public library buildings in the UK at the start of the 21st century

Alistair Black

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although the quality, performance and future of public library services in the UK is a matter of debate, there is little doubt that in recent years, despite claims relating to the emergence of a cyber-society, interest in library buildings and the library as 'place' has been intense, almost matching that seen during the Carnegie era of mass public library building in the early 20th century. Tapping into this renewed enthusiasm for the library built form, this article analyses evidence collected by the Mass-Observation Archive (MOA) in response to a request for written commentary on public library buildings, an investigation commissioned by the author. The MOA contains evidence, stretching back to the 1930s, of the British public's daily lives and attitudes. The Archive's data-collection method takes the form of essay-style contributions, varying from a few sentences to thousands of words, submitted from anonymous volunteer correspondents. A total of 180 essays (from 121 women and 59 men) were received, and all were read and analysed for the purpose of this study. Analysis focused on the tension between old and new styles of library design. It was found that while some people prefer public library buildings to retain their historic style and feel, others demand contemporary designs like those employed in recent years for new, 'flagship' buildings in Norwich, Peckham, Brighton and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A third category of opinion expressed a taste for the provision of up-to-date facilities and interior decoration in historic settings. A fourth strain of thought - the essence of which might be described as 'libraryness' - played down the importance of style, whether old or new, foregrounding the importance of services and collections. The second half of the article offers a discussion that places the MOA evidence in the context of an assessments of, and commentaries on, recent public library design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-45
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Librarianship and Information Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2011


  • 21st century
  • Mass-Observation Archive
  • United Kingdom
  • architecture and design
  • public libraries

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Library and Information Sciences


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