Research project

AHRC funded project: Shelf-Life; Re-imagining the future of Carnegie Public Libraries

AHRC funded project: Shelf-Life; Re-imagining the future of Carnegie Public Libraries

The project is led by a Conservation Architect, Dr Oriel Prizeman at the Welsh School of Architecture, with co-investigators Professor of Geographical Information Systems, Chris Jones at the School of Computer Science, Cardiff University and Professor Alistair Black from the School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As happens, eventually, to the books on the shelves they contain, libraries that have not been subject to restoration inevitably have a limited ‘shelf-life.’ Complaints of cold, leaking, dark or mouldy spaces do not precipitate creative responses and replacement buildings are called for as people perceive themselves to have become victims of their environments. Arguably, the very act of provision of a service such as a library takes away responsibility and sets up an awkward form of ownership.

As the economic balance shifted from coal rich to carbon conscious in the twentieth century, light went from expensive to cheap and heat from cheap to expensive. This shift has precipitated the condemnation of many hundreds of public buildings which were engineered specifically to meet the lean targets of their day with bright single glazed rooflights to maximise daylight compensated by huge fossil fuel fired boilers. Very often the functioning aspects of decorative schemes, the way in which they covered structural joints or incorporated heating or ventilation equipment are deemed redundant because of ignorance of how these mechanisms were designed to work. Given that such features were standard elements of so many buildings, there is potential to make significant gains from identifying such patterns and enabling future projects to contribute to the enrichment of knowledge bases of building components.

Since the 1840s, specifications determined a sequence leading from Structure to Finishes. It is proposed that this archaic workflow may be used to advantage in augmenting the information relayed by surface scanning techniques. The increasingly mechanised era of building from 1880 onwards is however, significantly better documented in technical terms than previous periods through records of product literature, standardised procedures and material classifications. The practice of building specification that grew from a consolidation of professional expertise on similar lines in the UK and the US could provide the basis for increasingly accurate interpretation of surface measurements of buildings provided by 3D laser scan techniques. Technical indices, professional literature and Carnegie UK and US archives provide significant and rich resources which are unparalleled for other buildings in their breadth and scope and so offer a particular opportunity to develop these tools.

Shelf-Life asks if the uniquely controlled procurement of over 2600 public buildings across Britain and America around 100 years ago by the Carnegie Library Programme could benefit from some systematic thinking for their re-vitalisation at a time of crisis. Using and developing new techniques of Historic Building Information Modelling (HBIM), the proposal aims to develop a parametric library of building components for Carnegie Libraries of the UK. A digital resource of common elements would enable better-informed, more sensitive and economic proposals for the rehabilitation and re-use of these buildings and set an example for others.

HBIM is limited by the availability of adequate object libraries because historic buildings do not generally have standard construction methods or components and 3D scans, although geometrically accurate, can capture surface information only. 3D scans cannot determine the actual materials or structural elements of existing buildings that lie behind the surface. The
number of Carnegie Libraries designed under a very controlled regime provides a unique resource. The deeper cataloguing of available information and technical guidance that is proposed here aims to make a step forward in enabling HBIM to facilitate informed conservation and design within these existing buildings.

Carnegie funding was critical to the public library movement in the UK and many of their features are common to other libraries of the time also. The research will focus upon British libraries but will make reference to the 2000+ US Carnegie libraries.

There are two 40 month research posts in complimentary roles in digital heritage based in architectural history and computer vision respectively, each offering the opportunity to carry out a PhD as a staff candidate.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to:

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