McGill University Cyberthèque
by Giancarlo La Giorgia
For decades, the lower level of the Redpath Library Building at McGill University languished as a drab, dimly lit, compartmentalized box within which books and students were stowed.
That changed when the Montreal school revamped some of that standard institutional library space into the Cyberthèque — an open, stylish, technology-centered learning space that has become one of the university's most popular study areas.
"During the school year, if you don't get in here before 8 a.m., you won't find a seat," reports François Émond, a principal of ÉKM Architecture, with a hint of pride.
The redesign by ÉKM and B + H Architects addresses both the library user experience and the radically changing nature of library collections and functions. Nowadays, says Douglas Birkenshaw, a partner at B + H, "the library needs to be a door onto the digital world, and the librarian the doorkeeper."
That's certainly the case at the Cyberthèque. No longer a container for physical books, the space instead provides easy access to McGill's growing collection of over two million electronic books and over 50,000 journal databases. "Whereas a hard-copy book may be borrowed 60 or 70 times in a semester, the electronic version will be downloaded 10,000 times," says Janice Schmidt, McGill's director of libraries. "The library has to reflect that reality."
The first floor of the Redpath Library Building, which houses part of McGill's Humanities and Social Sciences Library, has long been viewed as a basement: there is no ground-level entrance, and many windows were previously blocked off by interior walls, shelves, and boxes.
"It used to be that libraries were designed around the collection, not the students," says Schmidt. "Books don't need natural light, but students do." In transforming the space, the architects cleared obstructions away from the windows along the south and east walls, and took care to keep the room as open as possible.
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