The importance of a functional Materials Library

I’m a few months into this new journey now, I have met several potential clients, visited new practices in the design and architecture world and listened to many views and thoughts surrounding materials in general. What strikes me is that although materials form such a key part in any project, interior or exterior, it’s often an afterthought or application rather than a key part of the design itself. This was also my view while working in the industry myself. Materiality IS design! It sets your boundaries, shapes and guides the style and feel of a space and sets the perimeters for your details. The two go hand in hand and, in my experience, a project where materiality is just applied at the end will never live up to its potential.

How materials are presented and stored says a lot about a practice and how involved materials are in the design. Material & product libraries come in many forms and sizes- small or large, selective or experimental, digital or physical. But what makes a good library, and why would you need one?

In a traditional sense, a library has been a place to physically store acquired resources, organized them, preserved them and made them accessible to view, review and contemplate over. Today, the forms of libraries have changed to include or be replaced by a more digital form. The rise of information technology and evolving digital and media systems allows us to store knowledge and review material in a new way. As a materials & product librarian, I’m often faced with the question ‘is a physical library really necessary?’. Are libraries as we are used to see them now an open platform for digitalization? Is physical form, whether materials, books, or other resources more important than their equivalent databases, online forums and digitalized resources and do their benefits outweigh the investment involved?

The idea that a digital library is as beneficial a resource as a collection of physical, is something I sense more and more when visiting companies. There is often reluctance from companies to reserve valuable space for a function that may be accessed digitally in an acceptable way and to a fraction of the cost. For many companies, the benefits of a physical library will not make up for its cost. But for those who commit and invest in a material and product resource the benefits can be enormous to all levels of staff and beneficiaries.

When asked recently by a client I gave the example that ‘showing a client a picture of a fabric does not sell a cushion. You want them to feel its texture, explain its composition and materiality, see how the light reflects of the pile, stroke it to see how the texture and patterns change.’ The same, if you ask me, applies to products, sample items and books.

The importance of libraries has changed both in its spatial sense and how we now store information, but also in how we communicate. The way we share knowledge has changed dramatically in recent years. In its traditional sense a library has been a place where physical, informational and social infrastructure intersect in a formal environment.

The new breed of libraries, including public material libraries, are promoting a more relaxed, non-formal communicative space where knowledge and the idea of a social hub meets. This modern idea that scientific and technical knowledge, although of course also important, take a back seat to a stimulating environment where open consultation, displays, interaction, meetings and exhibitions are daily life. It is no longer a library just for the collection of things but rather a collection encouraging the engagement of its visitors and collaboration towards innovation and better environments.

In my own experience, a successful material & product library is functional in that it is meticulously organized and accessible to all. This is the most basic code I operate to. This inspiring space should be organised to give you mind room to search, contemplate and explore alternatives to compare. It needs to hold a layout or template that can easily be navigated by a person who has never previously visited a similar space, and with basic or no knowledge of the products at hand. It can be small, but with good and relevant contents. It should be inspiring to all levels of curious minds, offers a broad contents that can cater to specific and technical project queries as well as general context and inspiration.

In its most basic form, a materials library should provide a link between the past and the future, from traditional materials and building techniques to new man made inventions and smart materials.

In its next phase, the library should exist with a view to actively engage its visitors, to aid and forward design, support, discuss and at the same time challenge perception of materials. This level of engagement, while also successfully communicating technical performance, environmental credentials, suitable application etc will provide a new level of opportunities for making.

If a library hold opportunity for exhibitions, talks, multi sensory experiences or displays of unusual materials it will form an educational entity in its own right.

In my own work, the digital logging and storing of materials and knowledge is essential to form this organizational platform that libraries rely on. Most of my work ends up in any sort of digital form before being submitted. Allowing digitalization of libraries, sharing data and communicating is essential today, I embrace it and appreciate the benefits of technology. But it’s important not to underestimate the physical importance of materials and products in presentations, for development of knowledge and in education. Seeing and feeling really is believing here. Preserving the essence of the physical library has countless benefits to a purely digital version. A library’s digital form should build up on the foundation of a physical library and improve its representation and opportunity for communication, not the other way around.

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