University of Leeds library heralds new era for campus

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Book ends: the new Laidlaw Library at the university of Leeds is the first major building on its frontage in over 50 years. Neil Hudson got to go behind the scenes of the £25m project.

The University of Leeds is making a big noise about the new Laidlaw Library - currently under construction on Woodhouse Lane - and that’s fitting, considering the new £25m building stands next to a nightclub and, unlike most libraries, will have few quiet areas.

The four-storey building is pressed between the shoulders of two former churches - the former Emmanuel Church of England, now known as the Emmanuel Centre and the former Trinity St David’s Church, home to the Halo nightclub.

Its stout angular lines stand in complete contrast to the grand Gothic architecture of the buildings flanking it on either side and yet somehow it still manages to look like it belongs there.

Perhaps part of the reason for that is its frontage is in the same Portland stone used on the Parkinson Building - which is a sideways glance up the road - quarried from Portland Bill on the Dorset coast.

But the new library is much more than just a bold architectural statement.

Once open it will re-define what a modern library is supposed to do, with a strong emphasis on group working (or ‘collaborative learning’ as those in the system refer to it) and the abandonment, to a large extent, of the traditional quiet study area.

I was invited to view the building first hand in November at a ‘hard hat dinner’. The hard hats were necessary because most of the site was still under construction, the gaping innards of the building littered with wires, power tools and building materials but even then it made an impressive sight.

The bones of the building - its concrete floors, walls and stairs - will become a celebrated feature, while floor to ceiling windows will offer students grand views of the surrounding cityscape, even if some of that will only be the brick walls of the old churches on either side.

For university librarian Dr Stella Butler, the building reflects new ways of learning.

“We’re trying to make it as inviting as possible - we want students to feel like they own it, there will be meeting rooms big enough to accommodate up to 10 people and this reflects a change in the way people are learning - it’s no longer just people sat down on their own with a book, people are learning together. In that sense, it will be a real landmark for students.

“At the moment, we are not providing the amount of collaborative workspace we would like to and the new Laidlaw Library will address that, providing public-based learning. It’s going to be a landmark building. It represents the university’s commitment to providing a structured undergraduate experience.”

The notion of such a building buzzing with conversation jars somewhat with the stereotypical view of the library as a hallowed space, populated by studious individuals cloaked in silence and patrolled by scowling desk-bound officials but it’s a statement which is writ large across the new building, which will have a bustling cafe at its heart, with broad corridors, walkways and meeting spaces spread across every floor.

Among its 5.1km of shelving and around 150,000 books (and some 5,800 bookends), there will be over a thousand new ‘study spaces’, with more internet access points than your average teenager would care to shake a phablet at.

Indeed, this building has the smell of youth - it is aimed squarely at first and second year students with its emphasis on web-based learning, its clean lines, high ceilings and open spaces flooded with light. There’s nothing cloistered about it.

As such it will be a stepping stone for school leavers in terms of helping them adjust to academia. Books from the two other main campus libraries will help fill its shelves and while there will be nothing to stop students visiting them, the Laidlaw is being built with them in mind.

It may not have the awesome splendour of the Brotherton Library’s main reading room, with its magnificent marble columns and domed ceiling and it may not be as striking as the brutalist concrete of the Edward Boyle library (itself a Grade II listed building) but it is set to become a striking addition to the development of the campus.

Steve Gilley, head of estates, said: “This is the first time the university has built on its frontage since 1962, it’s an impressive building which is sympathetic to the buildings around it.

“It’s also part of a wider development plan for the campus. So, by next year, we will have £120m worth of developments in progress, including a £38m refurbishment of the engineering department, some £40m being spent on the medical school, £14m on the Student Union building and £24m on a refurbishment of the Edward Boyle Library, which will be completely stripped back to resemble how it looked in the 1970s.”

The building, which is due to open in February, has been designed to be as energy efficient as possible - indeed, one of its terraces will have a grassed roof, complete with bee hives.

All that aside, the Laidlaw Library is remarkable in another way - it is part of the first major fundraising campaign conducted by the university since 1925, when the then Duke of York, later King George VI, led a campaign which yielded £300,000 - about £10m in today’s money.

It was lucky enough to receive a donation of £9m from just one of its alumni - Lord Irvine Laidlaw, who studied economics there in the 1960s and went on to found a successful business.

Lord Laidlaw said: “I remember my own time at Leeds with great fondness. My studies there were the foundation of my business life. I have been delighted to be able to support Leeds’s work with less privileged young people; the plans for this magnificent new library have given me an opportunity to really cement my connection to an institution which gave me so much.”

Together with thousands of other donations, some small, some large, the fund has almost reached the £50m mark - just £10m shy of the £60m goal.

Director of development Michelle Calvert admitted it was “an ambitious step”, adding: “Just as we hoped, alumni have welcomed the opportunity to give something back to an institution which helped shape their lives. We have had some astonishing gifts – £9m towards our new library, £2.5m to establish research fellowships – but just an important have been the more modest donations from over 11,000 people worldwide. These funds aren’t just sitting in the bank, they are making great things happen.”

Inside the building, each learning space equipped with power points and the high-end connectivity needed for laptops, tablets and phones – it will give users access to online materials through the mobile devices many use as an integral part of their work.

Flexible group study spaces will also allow students to work together on joint assignments and presentations, reflecting the way modern learning is based as much on collaboration and interaction as it is on solitary study.

But it will do more. The Laidlaw Library’s community classroom will host outreach work with local schools and colleges, its café and courtyard will encourage arts projects, while outside, its steps will become a meeting place for students and the building itself will be a step in the success of one of the city’s most respected institutions.