There is a street library movement growing across Australia. Small repositories of knowledge are popping up in suburban front yards, inspiring communities to connect.

We spoke to the instigator of one such street library – architect Jonathan Goh who designed his own book exchange in West End.

“I love books. I love reading them, but I also love them as things, especially in big collections, and by extension, I love libraries,” said Jonathan who works at m3architecture.

Jonathan has worked on two multi-purpose libraries – the Brisbane Girls Grammar Research Learning Centre (which won the John Dalton Award this year) and The Women’s College Sibyl Centre within the University of Sydney (currently under construction).

“Both buildings are not libraries in the traditional sense, but have multiple functions like the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) – classrooms/library for the former and auditorium/tutorial hall/library for the latter. The blending of uses provides something fresh and exciting. Prior to m3architecture, I worked at Donovan Hill, and was there when SLQ was completed. I didn’t work on the project, but as a young architect, it deeply influenced my outlook on architecture and its procurement.”

It seems safe to say that Jonathan’s street library is a case of from big things, little (and arguably, more meaningful) things grow.

What prompted you to build your own book exchange?

I have always loved the idea of these libraries/book exchanges but what prompted me was bumping into my structural engineer at Bunnings. He was buying materials for his library/book exchange, which he was building, by hand, in the form of a London phone box! It prompted me to ask, from an architect’s perspective, what would a miniaturised library be like…

What kind of books are in your book exchange?

We started the library with about 100 books, which included novels, children’s books and non-fiction such as cook books, technical books and architecture books. In the first two weeks after we started, our library has grown to over 200 books with contributions from neighbours, friends and strangers. The collection is eclectic! Last time I checked, it included titles such as Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry, The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, and Introduction to Floriculture edited by Ray Larson.

Have you borrowed from your own book exchange?

We borrow books all the time, sometimes even our own books!

Who is your typical client?

I don’t exactly know. I guess it would be our neighbours, friends, school children and their parents, and since it is located near the bus stop and City Cat, possibly commuters. I also like to think some people make a special trip to use the library!

How do you think the book exchange affects neighbourly relations?

I would say the experience has been very positive. Because of the library, I’ve met neighbours I hadn’t met before. Some have dropped by to say hello to discuss the library, Many have contributed books and Some have left thank-you notes.

Do you find people congregating near the book exchange?

As I’m typing this, I can hear someone outside the library saying “Every street should have one of these!” However, most of the time, it is very discreet. It is quite surprising to see or hear people out front. We find out it has been used by noticing a new book, a small rearrangement, or a book no longer there.

Can you describe the design of the book exchange and the process of constructing your library?

Footpath libraries come in all shapes and sizes from doll houses to converted London phone boxes. When I started the design process, I wondered what an architect’s version would be like. As a starting point, I looked back at archetypical library, such as Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Library – a large, light-filled room, surrounded by a drum of books lending the space a certain atmosphere toward knowledge and contemplation. I wondered how some of these qualities might be miniaturised into a very small space.

I went through many reiterations, but settled on a square space within a circular space – a space within a space if you like. The inner square space is defined by the edges of three bookshelves. The outer skin is formed by three curved fibre-glass screens. There is a gap between the shelves and the screens creating an in-between space, which creates a sense of space in a very small area. The screens allow light into the space, and also provides a backdrop for the shadows of the trees around the structure. From the footpath, you encounter a structure more akin to joinery than carpentry – a set of bookcases.

It is hoped that people will interact with it like they would a bookshelf in a library (albeit outside along the footpath). Evan Goldsmith, who built some of the beautiful joinery in SLQ, built it. The thinking was that if the structure was well crafted, that care would be noticed, and users would treat the space in kind. The final result is a light filled room, surrounded by books provided by the community.

Are you happy with the design now that the book exchange is up and running?

I have a few more tweaks to the design that I’m working on, but I’m really happy that people are using it, and I love discovering new books in the library.

What would be your dream book to come into your exchange?

A book that I have read in the past and enjoyed, but I have totally forgotten about.

Photo credit:
All images courtesy of Jonathan Goh
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