It's hip to be square: the amazing reinvention of our local libraries

Libraries aren’t the dusty, daggy dungeons they once were. Lara Picone revisits some old haunts and uncovers a fresh world of books and beauty.

It has been more than 16 years since I was an active member of a library. Back then, I was a Berocca-fuelled university student punishing my hungover mind with Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation under interrogating fluorescent lights. Now, as I slip my shiny new library card into my wallet, I’m a caffeine-dependant grown woman cradling a nine-month-old baby and clutching a copy of The Pigeon Finds a Hotdog.

Life’s changed. But in that time, so have libraries. Although still centres for mind expansion and safe havens for shy, bookish teens, libraries are no longer the papermite-ridden strongholds of tweed, turtlenecks and lethargic dial-up internet. Today’s libraries are beautifully designed, light-flooded spaces that invite the world in, rather than shushing it with a stern tone.

Sydney is well onboard with this new kind of library. One, that despite an increasingly digital world, is even more relevant today than pre-Google. Walk into Woollahra Library at Double Bay, where you’ll see children whizzing down a slippery slide and students quietly engrossed in literature among the leaves of the indoor garden, and it’s clear libraries are much more than books and microforms. 

Here, an open amphitheatre design, white spaces and clever, quiet alcoves stretch across three levels that escalate in serenity. Since its relocation from Blackburn Gardens in 2016, the Woollahra Library has more than doubled its membership. It’s a space designed to welcome the community at any stage of their life, from students to new mothers and retirees. 

“We designed Woollahra Library at Double Bay to be a place beyond books.  It’s a community hub where people come to meet, connect, work and learn, as well borrow from our collections,” says manager of Woollahra Libraries, Vicki Munro. 

Indeed, as I bounce my baby along to Rhyme Time songs in this uplifting space, sitting among other mothers in various states of sleep deprivation. I feel less burdened by the often-lonely, wonderful tedium of nurturing an infant. Here are women I may never have met, if not for this library. We’ll borrow some books, sure, but it’s making these connections and inciting a love of literature in my tiny son that has brought us here today.

Since reintroducing libraries to my life, I’ve been touring local branches, from the sleek, sustainable, glass-walled Surry Hills Library to the brand-new Green Square Library. “Public libraries are important social and cultural places for people to expand their understanding of the world in which we live. They’re places for people to be together, even if they are doing their own thing,” says Heather Davies, City of Sydney’s manager of libraries and learning.

Surry Hills library

In a world where we are simultaneously more connected yet more isolated than ever before, intuitively designed libraries are drawing people back together. And it’s not just happening in Sydney. This renaissance is a global movement with incredible architecture and interior design making for some truly awe-inspiring and, of course, Instagrammable spaces. This is evident in Germany’s Stuttgart City Library by Yi Architects with its comprehensively white, minimalist design; Denmark’s colourful Hjørring Public Library; and Canada’s Halifax Central Library with its precarious-looking fifth-storey glass cantilever hanging over passersby. 

While there are incredible libraries, old and new, the world over, Munro says they also looked locally for inspiration when designing Woollahra Library, such as those at Surry Hills, Castle Hills and Brisbane City.

“It’s been particularly heartening to see the investments made in library infrastructure in Australia and other countries in recent years,” says Davies. “Building new or refreshing existing buildings helps libraries adjust to changes in service needs and brings in new people for a look, many of whom join up while they’re there.”

This is certainly the case with Green Square Library and Plaza, which last year beat libraries the world over to take out the Architectural Review Library Award. Its subterranean design with plaza-level glass pyramid and skyward-reaching tower, complete with a social-media friendly rainbow reading wall, is proof that musty, labyrinthine libraries are disappearing down the returns chute, along with stereotypes of bifocalled biddies with greying buns. “Libraries can be the visual anchor. Beautiful design make people proud of this public asset and create a sense of ownership,” says Davies.

Green Square library and garden

Green Square library and garden

At Green Square, study groups lounge in the sun on tiered wooden seats, teenagers self-consciously thumb through ’zines, bookclub ladies sip lattes in the cafe, and grandparents read softly to their young charges in the colourful kids space. 

The modern library may have profoundly changed, but like its predecessors, it’s still here for you, no matter your age or stage in life. As Davies says, “Libraries have always been the place to go to learn, and you will always be a different person coming out of the library to the person you were when you went in.” Even if it has been 16 years since you last visited.