Fisher's Future

By Caroline Baum

Image of Fisher Library

Photo by Diana Simmonds

Meet you at the Fisher” – if University Librarian John Shipp has his way that catchcry will echo across the Camperdown campus when the upgrade to the iconic library is complete. “We hope to make it a destination, a place where people want to go, restoring its essence as well as meeting current needs,” says Shipp, who has been advocating the $27m program of improvements – the first in the building’s 40-plus year history – for more than ten years. When it opened there were 14,000 students enrolled at the University; today there are more than 49,000 and space is at a premium.

“We have to rethink use and improve facilities, especially for students, eradicating long queues for computers and making more seating available,” says Shipp. The Library's collection has also outgrown the space. In order to allow room for this and annual growth the Library will move material that hasn’t been borrowed in the past five years into storage. Academic staff will review the material before transfer, and at least one copy of every purchased title will be kept in the collection. Low use duplicates will be offered to the University community first, with the remaining copies then sold at the annual Chancellor’s book fair.

“Patterns of use have changed due to technology. The new library will reflect that,” explains Shipp. “For example, there is much more group work undertaken nowadays, especially in business courses. Up until now we simply haven’t had enough power points to make that practical. Teams need to be able to practise their presentations and we have not been able to provide quiet space to do that. In the new library, one floor will be dedicated to quiet space, one will be specifically designed for collaborative work and one floor will suit mixed usage. We’ll be much more flexible, catching up on a global trend.”

But without compromising the original aesthetic of the library which, when it was built in 1963, was a landmark example of modernism at its most elegant. It remains one of architect Ken Woolley’s (BArch ’55 DScArch ’10) favourite projects, an early example in his illustrious career as a pioneer of the brutalist Sydney School. Remarkably, he was the design architect on the project at the precocious age of 25 and today, is one of the few architects in Australia to see his work listed as a heritage building in his lifetime.

Woolley formed a close bond with his client, University librarian Andrew D Osborn.

A few academics wanted to exclude students altogether and make the library a place just for the books,” laughs Shipp.

“He was an American who brought radical ideas with him about the way books were to be accessed for ease of use by students; and the efficiency of the book stack storage system. Despite our age difference, we had a great rapport,” remembers Woolley, who has been retained as a consultant on the project. He used new concrete hauling construction methods to build the five-storey undergraduate section and the nine storey book stack.
“Everything in the building was purpose-designed – details like the solid timber and wrought iron balustrades. So many places now are about generic, cheap, thin finishes, says Shipp, “whereas the Fisher combines a sense of history with a sense of the future.”

Students and faculty members were encouraged to give feedback about the proposed library upgrade; some responded in surprising ways. “A few academics wanted to exclude students altogether and make the library a place just for the books,” laughs Shipp.

“A few students opposed a coffee shop as detracting from space that could be better used for books,” he says, but a compromise was reached. A coffee shop will be integrated into the stack-building forecourt, supplemented by vending machines and a microwave in the undergraduate section. “Traditionalists will hate it,” predicts Shipp.

Reflecting the changing nature of the student faculty, the library is more than a resource. For many international students, it is a home away from home. “They are our heaviest users,” confirms Shipp, “and stay much longer hours. Often they have nowhere else to go; they live in over-crowded, cramped conditions, with little privacy. Here, we provide a space that is warm in winter, cool in summer, safe, pleasant and light, open ’til late at night and with helpful staff.”

Shipp hopes disruption and inconvenience to users will be kept to a minimum during the refurbishment, which is expected to be completed in 2013. “We have yet to decide whether we are going to close one floor at a time or half the building. It will depend on which is the most efficient and cost effective way to do it.”