SCONUL Library buildings visit

SCONUL Library buildings visit, 26 April 2012

Oliver Pritchard, Assistant Director Student & Learning Support, University of Sunderland, and Liz Waller, Deputy Director Information, Information Directorate, University of York 


As one of our series of library space visits, the SCONUL Working Group on Space Planning organised a visit to the new library building at the University of Aberdeen and an opportunity to tour the library at Robert Gordon University. The purpose of these visits is to provide an opportunity to get under the skin of a building, understand its strengths and the narrative of its conception and development. Our focus is on good design but not only for its own architectural merit but also in answer to the question – does the building work? The visits seek to provide the best opportunity to share and learn from best practice across the SCONUL community. This short article will give a little insight into that learning and a flavour of the design and experience of these Library buildings old and new.


Photos of the University of Aberdeen library building can be found at


Photos of the construction work at Robert Gordon University can be found at

Start & End Date : 
Thursday, April 26, 2012

The University Library,

University of Aberdeen,

Bedford Road,


AB24 3AA


The University of Aberdeen

Generously supported by the host library, Director Chris Banks and staff team, our programme included a tour of the building, a full presentation of the project history and realisation led by Chris Banks, a view from the building architect, and from building users. Taken together these elements provided a rounded and relatively deep view of the new Library placing it in its institutional and service context.


The building in its place
The new library offers an imposing external view and more than meets the architect’s vision for a building of "stature". While we may be reluctant to embrace terms like "iconic" there can be no doubting that this building is just that and a beacon for the university and the city beyond. Externally the inspiration of innovative Scandinavian design and vision of architect Stuart Hill (Schmidt Hammer Lassen), is a clear theme which continues to great effect in both internal layout and finishes.

The building has captured the university imagination and charmed many of those who might have been early sceptics as to its place and fit within university precincts. It was appropriately described by one of the user panel as a building within an ancient institution which looks forward, pointing the university, staff and students to the future.

Equally, the library building takes its place in the city and among its communities. The seemingly ambitious design plans won early support from the planning authorities; the ethos of the building and the services it hosts is one of access and public engagement as well as one of research, learning and academic endeavour; a building whose granite inspired external façade has been named the "zebrarie" by the local youth community can claim to have made a local impact and connection.


Learning spaces
A building of seven floors with stunning views of the city and seascape, the library is an intuitive space designed with intelligence and drawing on an evidence base of user behaviour. The result is testament to a stakeholder and process review approach to the build project. Collections are organised in keeping with known footfall and use; a sequence follows a logical path from bottom to top; cafe and gallery spaces located at ground level; quiet spaces are designed to radiate out both up and to the edges of the building, while also benefiting from the noise baffling provided by books and shelves. Any noise travel from the architectural centre piece of the atrium is managed out, giving the interior spaces calm, working atmosphere which users respect and in response to their environment, reflect and maintain. User visits, seat occupancy and self issue services have all increased hugely since opening. This is a library people want to be in and stay in.

The library design maximises light and light penetration from the use of both internal and external glazing; furniture and finishes are simple, high quality and monotone which together produce a high-end design and experience for both library users and library staff. As one user commented "If Apple designed libraries, they’d be like this white, shiny and intuitive".

The SCONUL programme allowed delegates a deep and rounded insight in what was a relatively short space of time. The integrated sessions called on the experiences of library management, architect and building users across several concise inputs. Each covered different aspects of the build and its delivery and from varying perspectives. However, commonly held were the enthusiasm, commitment, passion and pride in this impressive new library.

Robert Gordon University

Ten colleagues braved the Aberdeen weather and stayed on in the city overnight to visit Robert Gordon University (RGU) Garthdee campus and the Georgina Scott Sutherland Library.

Hosted by Michelle Anderson, Director of Library Services, the visit started with a briefing on the new campus master plan from Director of Estates and Property Services, Bill Somerville. RGU Garthdee campus occupies a beautiful wooded site on the banks of the river Dee and their new campus plan seeks to exploit their location, creating new buildings in ribbons (river like perhaps) to house faculty, cafes and social space, teaching space and a stunning "Library Tower" rising out of the lower level ribbons. The new buildings are designed to embrace the sustainability agenda and will feature the largest roof structure in the UK to utilise ETFE technology. The new development will see all academic activity move to the Garthdee campus, as the university currently maintains some activity in Aberdeen city centre.

Michelle shared the current suggested floor plans with the group, and talked through how the Library Tower will work within the greater, organic volume of the new buildings, integrated but also distinct within the larger structures. There was much lively discussion of issues around staff spaces, use of compact storage in open access areas and use of personal devices vs. traditional IT workstations amongst many other topics. The morning concluded with a visit to the current Georgina Scott Sutherland Library which is physically part of the Norman Foster designed Aberdeen Business School. It was interesting to see how some of the features of the Foster building – walkways, open vistas and sight lines –seem to carry through in the concepts for the new buildings. Under the new campus plan the ground floor of this space will become group study space under the management of the library. Michelle is looking forward to the challenge of managing a variety of learning spaces across the RGU campus.

The visit was over far too soon and conversation could have continued as we explored the opportunities which Michelle is embracing at RGU. We look forward to returning in autumn 2013 which will see the library safely ensconced in its new tower.

Initial feedback and early sight of the evaluations suggest that both sessions were well received by many of our delegates. Thanks are due to Chris Banks and her team at Aberdeen for their hosting and support in the event organisation and equally to Michelle Anderson, Bill Somerville and the Library Team at RGU.