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A Library with Glittering Prizes

Craigieburn Library stands in the heart of a developing community. New houses climb the low hillsides of this rapidly expanding town on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. The main road leading from the centre of Victoria’s capital and passing the international airport is busy with building plots; the library is just over two years old and has become the focal point for the town’s ever-increasing number of new inhabitants. As proof, the library car-park is already being expanded to accommodate its growing membership which is increasing at a rate of around 200 new members per month.

Craigieburn Library first came to my attention during IFLA 2014 in Lyon, France. The library won IFLA’s coveted Public Library of the Year award, sponsored by the renowned firm of Danish architects, Schmidt Hammer Lassen. It won against stiff competition, including the new Library of Birmingham, so I couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit this library during a recent trip to Australia and see for myself what makes it so special.

Designed by Sydney-based firm of architects, Francis-Jones, Morehen, Thorp, the judges selected Craigieburn as its winner because:
“Craigieburn Library stands out as a significant modern construction with a strong, recognizable architectural concept that is characterized by a simple design using few but powerful materials.”

And it concludes:

“Craigieburn Library is a good example of how to use a library to create a sense of belonging for all demographic groups as both a learning centre and a gathering place … the new library building is a brilliant and dynamic platform on which to expand the cooperative development of living culture and knowledge…”

I met with Amanda Forde, Branch Co-ordinator Craigieburn Library, and Bill Dear, Co-ordinator of Craigieburn’s Learning programme, in the library’s foyer and began by asking them about the demographic so clearly mentioned by IFLA’s judges.

“The library serves people who speak 170 different languages with 70% of those having a language other than English as their first language,” explains Bill.
“As you can imagine, social inclusiveness is high on the agenda,” adds Amanda. “Our staff are multi-lingual and the introduction of new languages into the library is ongoing. We have recently included Punjabi, Sinhalese and Turkish will be coming soon.”

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The library’s linguistic diversity is borne out by the building’s engraved glass windows and doors that display a variety of scripts, including Russian and Arabic.
“At the same time we like to think that our library is distinctively Australian,” continues Bill.

Bill goes on to explain that the building, funded by the local Council, Australian Government and the Victorian State Government to a cost of nearly 18 million Australian dollars, utilises locally sourced earth as the primary building material, and follows a green agenda, setting a benchmark for the growing township. The heavy rammed earth walls – a mixture of compacted soil and cement – form the enclosure and connect the building with the land on which it sits. The library seems to grow from the earth.

“With such a strong identity the library is the community’s hub and welcomes everybody,” says Amanda. “It brings people together and acts as a focal point for the community in a warm, friendly environment. The foyer acts as the point of contact between the people that live here and the local council. There’s an art gallery and crèche facilities so that parents can look at art, browse the library, attend courses, pay their rates, visit the doctor or even do their shopping at the local supermarket while their kids are being looked after.”

The building is conceived as a series of interlocking pavilions of varying height and scale that step down from the entrance where I met Amanda and Bill, to a two-storey, central library reading space with excellent access to natural light, to the low scale of the children’s library. Each pavilion opens into the landscape and gardens planted with native Australian vegetation.

As I start my tour, I soon become aware of one of Melbourne’s obsessions: the coffee shop, and the relaxed atmosphere of people here to enjoy themselves is infectious. The RFID consoles are busy and handle, I am told, some 36,000 loans per month. The shelving is at a low level and curved with as many outward-facing books as possible. Areas are defined by glass and low tables. Computers are available and there is free WiFi throughout the building. People are chatting, children are intrigued and curious while special studies areas allow others to get their heads down and concentrate. The Quiet Study Room prompts me to comment on the clear and attractive signage that I have noticed throughout the building.

“Ah, yes,” says Bill, “we won an award for our signage. In fact we won three awards this year. “IFLA Library of the Year,” the “Achieving E-smart Status” award and we were voted “Australia’s Favourite Library Service”. To be honest we didn’t expect to win anything but 2014 was a year of honours for us and we are proud of our achievements.”

Looking through the catalogue on the large touch-screen monitors, I notice that BDS metadata reaches out across the globe.

“We will have many records that come from Dumfries,” says Amanda, referring to the agreement between the British Library and the National Library of Australia. “UK published material forms a significant part of our stock, so the metadata BDS supplies the BL is of vital importance to us and our members.”

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Before we enter the children’s area of the library, I notice two large HD TVs that are full of vibrant colours. These, Amada tells me, are the place for computer games. Visitors to the library can play a selection of games and the generous size of the screens often draws an audience. I have recently read about the growing popularity of computer gaming tournaments that draw huge audiences and here was a library responding to this trend.

As I followed Amanda and Bill into the children’s library I was greeted by wave upon wave of floating bubbles that burst as they collided with books and people. It was story-time and one of the librarians was engaged in a very lively session, leaping, crouching and acting out a story to the fascination of a host of children and parents.

“Telling stories is such an important part of Australian culture,” says Bill. “We love a good story, stories unite people, doesn’t matter what culture you come from. Perhaps that’s just one of the many things we learnt from the indigenous peoples.”

Of course, any community undergoing such rapid growth from such a diverse range of cultural backgrounds will encounter problems, and Craigieburn is no exception. The library plays an important role with its Learning Centre, situated on the upper floor above the entrance foyer. Here students who find it difficult to adapt to the more conventional forms of study can come and attain the “Victoria Certificate of Applied Learning” through small or one-to-one teaching groups and specialised teaching techniques. The success of this library-based programme in helping problem students to adapt to education and society as a whole is something of which Bill is particularly proud.

“The library is truly inclusive. It is for everybody, here to help everybody, no matter your background, your language or your culture.”

In the end I conclude that this is the reason that Craigieburn Library has won so many awards. From design, to day-to-day running it is a library that has been adopted by its community, its county and its country.