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New Library in Almere

Viewing its visitors more as customers than members, the new library in Almere designed by Concrete takes its inspiration more from today's retail concepts than yesterday's library institutions.

By No author / 03-05-2010

Lunchtime in the New Library in Almere. A couple of schoolgirls in their teens are frantically scanning a tabletop covered with books. They are cursing the fact that they can’t find what they are looking for. Surely everything here, in a brand-new library, was in its rightful place. “Nice place this, but finding what you’re looking for isn’t easy,” explained one girl. “The old library was smaller, not as nice, but at least you always found the book you were looking for,” added her friend. 

The New Library in Almere (11,000 m2) certainly does things a little differently, and enlisted the services of Concrete architectural associates to help them do it. “We saw membership and visitor numbers dwindling,” explains Marga Kleinenberg, who oversaw the entire project for the new library and even selected the interior architect. “People were turning their backs on the library and finding their information elsewhere. So ten years ago we commissioned an independent a survey of members to find out who they really were and what they were looking for. That threw up some interesting ‘customer profiles’, which then formed the basis for the departments in the new library.”

Thinking of library visitors more as customers than members prompted Kleinenberg and colleagues to look at how department stores and big bookshops pull in the public and display their wares. The traditional library stacks books in endless rows and all you see is the spine. Turn it so you can see the cover and the browser is much more likely to reach out and pick it up. Shops provided other clues in the way they organise space into themed zones, present products together, and tailor displays to appeal to defined ‘customer groups’.

No surprise, therefore, that interior designers Merkx+Girod were frontrunners for the interior commission until Kleinenberg threw another name into the hat. “I’m an avid reader of interior magazines and had seen lots of projects by Concrete — the clubs, that pharmacy. I was a fan and felt they could translate retail concepts into the library context.”  

And thus it came to pass. Concrete pitched and Concrete won. “Their presentation alone did it. Not a mood board in sight. Just a thorough analysis of different archetypes — the home furnishing store, the department store, the shopping mall — and how effective they are in terms of structure, organisation and customer experience. It was clear from the start that Concrete understood the material, knew where we wanted to go, and were going to help us get there.”

In the library, books are not grouped by number, but sorted into ‘shops’ or ‘lifestyle-oriented' spaces for each segment of the book market (youth, culture, health, travel and so on). Openness and legibility are vital. The run shopper can head straight to the product wanted, while the fun shopper is enticed to wander through the book landscape until tempted to pause.

The building itself, designed by Meyer & Van Schooten, is triangular in plan and is set on a sloping site with a six-metre change in height from one side to the other. Inside, the architects solved the height difference with a series of stepped terraces — Kleinenberg calls them ‘paddy fields’— separated by sinuous contour lines. Winding bookshelves (5000 running metres in all) follow the edges of the terraces and organise the interior into different zones for different types of customer.

The ‘High Tension’ zone, for example, caters for fast-moving information junkies who spend their time scrolling and zapping through material at speed. Then there’s the ‘Retreat’ zone, for people who like to step back from the hurly-burly of life with a book on, say, herb gardens or the royal family. More than a dozen such zones were defined and accorded a zone of their own.

Concrete also neatly integrated everything from seating, workstations and counters to info-terminals and illumination into the winding bookshelves. Posters with the name of each zone feature images — selected by visual communication firm Thonik — that allude to the theme of the zone. A photo of the Great Wall of China (a cliché if ever there was one) announces the travel section, which in Almere goes by the name of the ‘Destination’ zone.

Is there a danger that the library has sold its soul to the devil? Given up on the library as a public institution and conceded victory to the department store? “Not in the least,” asserts Marga Kleinenberg. “Presentation matters a lot now. But our mandate to make information accessible to the public hasn’t changed, and neither has the content all that much. We may stock fewer copies of classic works now perhaps, but we do purchase a few extra copies of the latest Harry Potter instead.”

The Almere interior is certainly a departure from the traditional library, and the decor devised by Concrete reconciles a sense of informality with a dash of decorum that never becomes too stiff or studious. Yet if the library is a metaphor in today’s society, the overt allusions to the world of retail are telling.

On my way out I bump into the schoolgirls again. And had they found that book in the end? “Yes, we came across it completely by chance.”

Photography: Wim Ruigrok

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