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64th IFLA General Conference
August 16 - August 21, 1998
Code Number: 030-135-E
Division Number: VI
Professional Group: Library Buildings and Equipment
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 135.
Simultaneous Interpretation: Yes
Twenty years of public library building in flanders : 1978-1997
Flemish Library and Archive Association (VVBAD)
E-mail : email@example.com
Since the library act of 1978, at least 164 new library buildings have been erected in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium with 6 million inhabitants. In a time span of two decades, one in two local authorities have invested in new infrastructure for their local public library.
In this article, the main reasons for this library building boom are described: the new library act of 1978, the merger of private libraries, the growing professionalism, the exponential growth of library use and the subsidies for building. A number of basic data will be analysed such as the year of opening, new / converted buildings, floor space, the cost of building and equipment and the evolution in library attendance.
At the IFLA-conference, slides of some remarkable buildings will be shown and described in detail
What causes the boom in new library building ?
The new library act of 1978
When Flemish Parliament voted the library act in 1978, Flanders finally became member of the club of countries with a thorough library legislation. The legislator obliges every municipality to establish and maintain a public library. The municipalities got ten years to comply with this new act.
Before 1978, the library scene was characterised by small-scale libraries, voluntarism, lack of funding, and compartmentalization along socio-political lines. Only a strong legislation can create a framework in which a mature public library scene can develop. It was at that time necessary to force the local authorities to observe minimum quantitative and qualitative standards.
That is why the library act is so detailed. The library standards are described extensively. There are specific building and design standards for the building and the infrastructure of the main library and its branches. A special Royal Decree stipulates subsidising rules for both premises and equipment. (KB of 23.10.1979). There are norms for the minimum quantity of books, periodicals and audio-visual materials a library has to purchase yearly, depending on the number of inhabitants. There are standards for the minimum height of the lowest book shelf (25 cm), the highest (170 cm) and for the distance between two shelves (170 cm). Open access to the shelves is required for the adult and youth departments. There must be a reading room with a certain number of tables and seats...
In this way, an almost mathematical calculation of the necessary minimum floor space is possible. All building projects have to observe these standards. This legislation strengthens the position of the librarian when arguing about the need for new premises. In those years, some, not to say most, of the local governing bodies were still thinking in a 'pre-library act' way.
The reverse of the medal is that this stringent legislation slowed down the rate of development and the change in ideas on library building and design. Too often, for budgetary reasons, the minimum norms were considered to be maximum standards. Furthermore, the legislative framework made it almost impossible to experiment, to develop or to adapt to local needs. E.g. an official exemption was needed if a library wanted to integrate the reading room in the open access area.
A consequence of the new library act was that there was no future for the small private catholic, socialist or liberal libraries. They had to merge into one municipality structure, were overtaken by the local authorities or ended their activities. In less than twenty years, the total number of libraries dropped from 1330 in 1978 to about 316 in 1998. The private library premises were not suited to accommodating a new library. For most of them the accommodation was precarious. Their premises could at best be used for the housing of a branch.
The situation was totally different in a small number of municipalities that had not waited till 1978 to establish a public library worth the name. Most of them used a building that was purpose-built. It is clear that the names of these cities are not mentioned in the list of recent buildings.
The obligation to establish a library had a positive effect on the employment of librarians. The library law described the competence of staff and the necessary certificates. The profession attracted more youngsters and led to unseen dynamism. The educated staff formulated the professional needs on , amongst other things, the housing of the library. From 1985 onwards, the association of librarians VVBAD has organised almost every year well-attended excursions to new libraries in Belgium and abroad. Especially the visits to the 'dreigeteilte' library of Gütersloh in Germany were very successful, both in terms of participants and in terms of new ideas and inspiration. Not only the building as such was studied, but also the user-friendly layout and arrangement of materials. (1)
Exponential growth in library use
The exponential growth in library use by the public made clear that there was an increasing need for specially adapted accommodation. More users also made the issue of public libraries more interesting for the politicians. On one hand the resources put into the library were well spent, on the other it is clear that every user meant a potential elector.
Of course, the subsidising mechanisms make the dream of a new library building more realistic. According to the library act, the financial cost of the public library is borne by three partners : the Flemish government, the provinces and the municipalities.
Up to 1990 the local authority could apply for a building grant of maximum 60% with the Flemish government. From 1990 until 1994 the total budget was diminished and fixed on 80 million BEF a year. Since 1995, there have been no special funds for library buildings any more. The municipality has to decide how to allocate the money they receive from the overall government investment fund.
In 1996 the furniture subsidising mechanism ended. Before, libraries could apply for grants to renew or expand their shelves, seats and tables. In previous years a budget up to 33 million BEF (1993) per year was made available by the Flemish government. This budget was seriously cut back in 1994, which resulted in applicants only receiving 27% instead of 60%. From 1996 until today, this budget has no longer been spent on equipment, but on the Internet project.
New library building (2) - an analysis
Year of opening
This graph clearly shows that there two periods.
Not many new libraries were opened in the first eleven years after the new library act, except for 1982, when there were elections for the local councils. In this period the priority of the local authorities was to comply with the new library act. The establishment of the library, the recruitment of the personnel, the merging of the private libraries, the acquisition of library material … and the preparation of building plans and documents took most of the time. The time delay between planning and the opening of the building is estimated at five and a half years (3). Sixty-five percent of the 28 projects described in the book were started during this decade. Only 18% opened before 1990.
Eight new buildings were opened in 1990, five in both 1991 and 1992 and since 1993 the figure has risen to ten per year. Sixty-nine new libraries were opened in the period 1994-1997, i.e. more than 17 a year. Most of the new buildings have been opened in the last four years.
It is difficult to predict the trend for the years to come. This boom cannot be continued because one in two municipalities has constructed a new library in the last twenty years. At the same time it is difficult to say how they will react to the abolition of the library building grants. As there is no central reporting station, no figures on new building projects are available.
New / converted buildings
One in two projects is a new building, one in three is a conversion of existing premises such as a brewery, a church or an industrial plant. One in ten new libraries is part of a larger entity, a city hall, a cultural centre or a museum, and there are no figures available for 7% of the buildings. A statistical analysis of the figures on the time scale does not show an evolution from the building of new libraries to the conversion of existing libraries or vice versa.
Number of inhabitants - number of new buildings
Inhabitants total number of new total number of % of municipalities
libraries municipalities with a new library
<5,000 2 15 13%
<7,500 9 32 28%
<10,000 16 51 31%
<12,500 24 48 50%
<15,000 13 38 34%
<20,000 14 49 29%
<30,000 27 38 71%
<40,000 13 23 57%
<75,000 1 7 14%
<125,000 2 6 33%
<250,000 1 1 100%
>250,000 0 1 0%
Total 122 309 39%
Most of Flanders' municipalities (4) (6) are small. Sixty percent out of a total of 309 have fewer than than 15,000 inhabitants. Small municipalities mean small financial and personnel resources. The expectation that relatively fewer new libraries would be erected in these municipalities has been proved by the figures Nevertheless, almost 50% of the projects were realised in these municipalities. It is in the category of the smallest municipalities with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants that only two out of fifteen have built or converted a library. In the category of municipalities with 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants, an amazing 71% realised a building project.
Inhabitants floor space m2 per 100 inhabitants
<5,000 329 7,35
<7,500 356 5,48
<10,000 660 7,56
<12,500 489 4,37
<15,000 711 5,23
<20,000 828 4,68
<30,000 1275 4,94
<40,000 1770 4,68
<75,000 8917 13,2
<125,000 4604 4,78
<250,000 7500 3,33
There is of course a positive relation between the number of inhabitants and the total floor space of the library The more inhabitants, the bigger the library. That is why the surface area per inhabitant has been calculated. As expected, the smaller municipalities have more square metres per inhabitant. The figure diminishes from 7.35 m2 for 100 inhabitants in municipalities with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants to 3.33 m2 for the largest city.
If the area per inhabitant is measured on a time scale the figure rises slightly from 4.30 m2 per 100 inhabitants (period 1978-1981) to 5.18 m2 per 100 inhabitants in 1994-1997.
107 libraries stated the cost of their building projects. These figures inflation-corrected using the ABEX (4) -index prices of 1997.
The average project costs 39,5 million BEF with a surface area of 961 square metres. This is about 41,158 BEF per square metre. Extrapolating this figure, we come to an investment in public library buildings (164 ) of about 6,500 million BEF of which 50% has been spent in the last four years.
We tried to analyse the time evolution of the building cost per square metre. A high standard deviation of 27.822 is found when prices are corrected with the inflation rate. This might be caused by the important differences between projects of small and large premises, the difference between converted and new buildings, the small number of openings in the first ten years. Another reason could be the trend towards a more industrial way of , which makes building cheaper. On the other hand, not only the building 'an sich' is considered but also the improvement of the area around the building. There are not enough data to make a serious analysis.
The average expenditure on furniture is 4.2 million BEF. About 11% of the cost of the building is spent on furniture and equipment. In the last twenty years, this expenditure has risen by 10%. We suspect that this is caused by the rising attention for the interior, and the presentation of library materials. The linear book shelving with the highest capacity is more and more abandoned. A growing number of libraries arrange the materials according to interest groups. Also the choice for an integrated shelving system with book and non-book materials on the same shelves means more sophisticated, more flexible and thus more expensive shelves.
The figure of library users (5) per inhabitant is significantly higher in municipalities with a new library building, especially in those libraries constructed in the period 1986-1993 which count 30% of their inhabitants as registered users. The average for Flanders is 23.6%. In the libraries that were built in the last four years the user percentage is only 23.5%. This low figure is due to the fact that these municipalities only recently started with a library. It has to be studied how the user figures will develop in the following years.
One out of two Flemish municipalities have erected a new library building in the last two decades. The period of the shabby local library is definitively over. The library of today is housed in an attractive, flexible and multi -functional building, purpose-built for the huge collection of books, periodicals, audio-visual and digital material and equipment. At the same time the library is a meeting place for the locals and a centre for cultural and educational activities. The continuously growing number of attendants proves that the investment is greatly appreciated.
- The libraries of Gladbeck and Münster (Germany) were also visited. In the Netherlands the following public libraries were visited : Rotterdam (1985), Middelburg (1986), Breda and Tilburg (1994), and Den Haag (1996). In 1988 a program 'visit the library in your own region' started with visits to public libraries in the province of Oost-Vlaanderen, in 1990 Brabant, in 1993 Limburg, in 1996 Antwerpen and in 1998 in West-Vlaanderen..
- Only those projects of which the figures of the year of opening and the floor space were known on 27th April were analysed (124 libraries of an estimated 164 new buildings / conversions).
- With a standard deviation of two and a half year. This figure is based on 28 building projects that are presented in detail in the book "Bibliotheken bouwen in Vlaanderen : twintig jaar openbare bibliotheekbouw 1978-1997" (English edition "Twenty years of library building in Flanders : 1978-1997) published by the VVBAD.
- In this section we do not count the municipalities of the Brussels region.
- The Association of Belgian Experts publishes this index. It started in 1914 with 1. The index grew from 282 in 1978 to 468 in 1997.
- Based on the figures of 1997 if available.