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In this week's podcast...

From digital to traditional, fictional to fantastic, this week’s episode of The Awkward Corner saw Stephen, Amy & SJ take a tour of the world’s best libraries. 

Libraries are the ultimate source of inspiration and in the face of the sheer volume of digital resources, we need to reconnect with these hallowed spaces. So join our tutors on a tour of their favourite libraries around the world.

Duke Humphrey - The Bod, Oxford.

You'll Never Be Alone

This week we have been delving into the world of libraries, a topic close to all of our hearts and one we have been dying to discuss from the very beginning.  

Libraries are often a place of sanctuary and security, offering us not only a place to hide, but a place to escape. It’s a world full of possibilities and people ready to tell their stories. As Tanya Kirk, Lead Curator at The British Library said, “All those hundreds of years of people’s voices, their lives and experiences, recorded in books that have passed through so many hands – the impression they leave behind, means you never feel totally alone”. 

The Poe Hole

Before we got into the main event this week, we discussed the revelation that the gothic literary icon, Edgar Allan Poe, had a thing or two to say about interior design. In 1840 Poe published an article in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine describing the perfect interior. In his view, the carpet, which should not be ‘bedizened’ in any way should inform the rest of the room. Motifs such as flowers or well-known objects should not be ‘endured’, so we can safely say he would not have been a fan of the pineapple trends. There should be no cornices and the colour palette should be crimson and gold. He believed mirrors were unpleasant, and instead should be replaced with ‘gracefully hanging shelves’. Needless to say the room, a recreation of which can be seen below, is somewhat underwhelming and not what you would have expected from the author who dreamt up the 7 apartments in The Masque of the Red Death. You can see it below, courtesy of the National Park Service.

The Best Libraries: Design

Designing a library is not easy, there are often many constraints in terms of layout, accessibility and expectation. This becomes even harder in public library design, where taxes often go towards upkeep and regeneration. In the last 10 years over 800 libraries have closed here in the UK, with visitor numbers plummeting by 72% in the last year alone, whilst eBook lending continues to grow. Much like previous discussions surrounding visitors to museums and retail spaces, something needs to be done to entice people into libraries once again, and surely designing interesting spaces where people want to be is one way of doing that? - The Dewey Decimal System

As well as the design of a physical space, organisation of books is another key consideration when space planning in a library setting. Many libraries still follow the Dewey Decimal System first used in 1876 and developed by Melvil Dewey. Spoiler alert, Dewey was not a very nice man, and his conduct with women left much to be desired, although he is credited with increasing the population of female librarians from 20% to 92%, although his motives were questionable.

Although many libraries still follow this system of classification, and it does indeed make searching for books much easier, there are some serious flaws with the system. For example, up until 1996 homosexuality was housed in the ‘mental derangement’ category and there is still only 1/10th of the space in the religion category (200) for faiths other than Christianity. Although this does not equate to physical space, if a library wants to house a wide range of materials, 000’s right the way through to 900’s, it does limit the number of volumes that can be included under each.

The Fantasy Library

Belle's Library - Beauty & the Beast

We could not have a discussion about libraries without talking about Belle’s library in the 1991 Disney classic Beauty and the Beast, and this got us thinking about other libraries in film and TV than left us desperate for our own membership card!

Image by Kieran Belshaw: Concept Artist on Game of Thrones. Via Artstation
The Citadel Library

The Citadel from the cult TV show Game of Thrones, something else Amy hasn’t seen, is the headquarters of the Order of Maester, a group of scholars who advise on all things scientific, medical and historical. The Citadel library was the largest interior concept created for the series. It was then turned into a digital reality by concept artist Kieran Belshaw using Maya. The question still remains – how did they find anything? The Leiden Arts Society attempt to answer that question in this great comparison of the Citadel Library with real-life historical library designs.

Hogwarts Library

Finding things is not so much of a problem at Hogwarts as the books will just float off the shelves and into your hands. Just don’t get caught in the restricted section without permission!

Sunnydale Library - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

And finally, one for the Giles fans out there. The Sunnydale Library was regularly frequented by Buffy and her friends in the late 90’s and earlier 00’s. Although being positioned on the hellmouth does make it one of the most dangerous libraries on our list.

Sunnydale makes it onto our best libraries list because of its classic charm. The central reading desk and traditional library lighting set the scene perfectly the gang’s headquarters. 

The Best Real-Life Libraries

The British Library -
The British Library

The British Library, London, boasts 400 miles of shelving. It has underground specalist storage for some of the world’s most important written texts, including the Magna Carta. This grade I listed building opened its doors in 1998, 34 years after the concept was born. The lead architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson was Knighted shortly after the grand opening
St John's Library, Oxford


Oxford is densely occupied by libraries, with one of the most famous being The Bodleian, which is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and the second largest in the UK after The British Library. However St. John Library, over 400 years old, has something the Bodleian doesn’t. A headless ghost that kicks his head around to distract its studious patrons.

The University of Coimbra

Not only is the University Library of Coimbra incredibly beautiful, it also has a unique way of protecting the books from unwanted insects. The library is home to a colony of bats which fly out at night and feast. The only problem with this is that one of the poor staff members have to clean up bat poo every morning!

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt

The original library of Alexandria is fabled as one of the world’s great lost wonders. It was known for being a universal library meaning its aim was to collect all existing information, universally. There is some debate as to how it was destroyed with religious and political conflict being the main contender, however regardless it is synonymous which learning and enlightenment.

The library is celebrated today through the existing of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which aims to recreate the ethos of the original building. It is possible for the physical space to house up to 8 million books, but what’s really impressive is that their computer archive holds everything ever published online.

Ancient Library of Alexandria - Fine Art Images/Heritage-Images/age footstock
MVRDV Architecture -
The Tianjin Binhai Library, China

Unlike The British Library The Tianjin Binhai Library in China was designed and built in a record 3 years. The architects, MVRDV, worked alongside interior architect firm TADI. It contains a spherical auditorium with floor to ceiling bookcases, being likened to a cave, because of the formation of the shelving.


Listen to the Podcast

You can listen to the whole of Season 1 of The Awkward Corner on a podcast channel of your choice or view each episode individually.
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