McGill University Cyberthèque
Taking a page from retail design, the Cyberthèque's long L-shaped service counter was modeled after the Apple Store's Genius Bar. "There's nowhere for the staff to hide," says Birkenshaw of B + H. "They're compelled to deal with students one-on-one, at eye level. For students, it makes the librarian a much more approachable figure."
The redesign also reflects the interconnected, always-online experience that students of the "millennial" generation are accustomed to. Rows of flat-screen monitors provide enough workspace for an individual, but can easily accommodate group work. Along one wall, six restaurant-style booths were designed to accommodate small groups. Each booth consists of wooden bench seating wrapped around one or two tables, with a whiteboard and digital displays mounted on the seatback.
The centerpiece of the project consists of four glass-enclosed study pods, each with seating for ten people, furnished with a large whiteboard, a big-screen flat-panel TV and DVD player, and hookups for laptops. The pods allow small groups to have discussions without disturbing the rest of the library, yet maintain a connection to the room through transparent walls.
The positioning and proportion of each section of the library were constrained by the existing structural and mechanical systems. "We were confronted with how to fit all these different areas around so many columns, and all the ducts and wiring," recalls Émond.
The architects devised graceful solutions. Columns are barely noticeable where the booths wrap around them, and the central columns double as quick-access computer stations. In each of the study pods, the electrical and mechanical systems are housed in a column that provides a wall for the whiteboards — actually a glass pane over a sheet of white plywood — and also supports out-of-the-way coat pegs.
In most of the Cyberthèque, the ceiling height is limited to eight feet (2.4 meters) due to all the mechanical systems, but in the area over the modular seating and the edges of the booths, the architects were able to raise the ceiling a few more feet. "It was worth the effort, because it really changes the feel," remarks Émond. "It gave the space some breathing room it wouldn't have had otherwise."
As before the renovation, most of the lighting is fluorescent tube lighting, but now half of the fixtures are aimed upward, bouncing light off the ceiling for a less industrial feel. The former bland color scheme of yellows, off-whites, and gray concrete was replaced by brighter colors and touches of natural materials, such as the bamboo paneling that covers some of the columns, complemented by potted plants scattered throughout the space. Schmidt asserts that the light yellows and greens help students stay alert yet calm, and that the plants have a positive affect on student behavior.
Originally, the study pods were planned to have sheer curtains that could be closed when students wanted some privacy, but that idea was deemed impractical by the client. A proposed alternative for reducing the transparency of the glass was to etch snowflakes into it, but Schmidt vetoed that idea. "Montreal has enough snow that student don't need to see more of it year-round," she says. Ultimately, the university's library staff were asked to provide their favorite quotes about libraries and learning, which were silk-screened onto both sides of the glass in various sizes, three-quarters of them in English and one-quarter in French.
Several types of seating were used in the different study settings: hard wood for the booths and plastic for the quick-access computers, just uncomfortable enough that students don't linger too long; plush modular stools connected in a ripple pattern near the booths to maximize space and allow students to form quick groups; and plush office chairs for longer periods of study, with different chair colors corresponding to different sections of the library so staff can keep track of where chairs belong.
The architects credit Schmidt with steering the project in a positive direction. She was formerly the head librarian at the University of Queensland, in her native Australia, where she oversaw a similar library modernization initiative.
"She understood our challenge — transforming this cloistered, underutilized space into something open and vibrant that reflects real-world working conditions," says Émond. "We've provided an interface where students can connect to information, and each other, through digital media."
The planned second phase of the project — to be undertaken by the same architectural team pending funding by the university — will provide direct access from the street and expand the design principles of the Cyberthèque to the upper level of the Redpath Library Building.
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Giancarlo La Giorgia is a freelance print and video journalist. He is president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada: Quebec chapter, a member of the English Language Arts Network, and author of the best-selling book Canadian War Heroes: Ten Profiles in Courage. More by Giancarlo La Giorgia