Oct 7, 2019

Removing books from a library—yes, you read that right—created a better learning experience at a university in Canada

By Paul Tarricone

Libraries can enlighten us. Or they can have precisely the opposite effect—architecturally speaking. Over the years, the stacks at the Bishop’s University Library in Sherbrooke, Quebec, had become so densely packed that they blocked most of the available natural light, despite the ample size of the building’s windows. Due to its many corridors, the library had become a dusty and confusing labyrinth. Making matters worse, the low-ceilinged basement received no natural light at all.

A renovation project spearheaded by Montreal architect Lemay (with an assist from lighting agency LumiGroup) sought to open up and brighten the three-level building by letting in more natural light. Supplementing the daylight is a combination of pendants, downlights and strategically positioned 1960s-style throwback luminaires.

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Lemay’s objective was to reorganize the space, making it easier for students to move from floor to floor. With book loans in decline due to growing Internet use, the stacks were also thinned out in order to declutter the space. The result: from morning to afternoon, the ground floor and upstairs are bathed in natural light, where previously there was barely any at all. The library has now been recast as a multifunctional space ideal for study, reading, discussions, meetings and public lectures.

The library grounds offered advantages, says Eric Pelletier, senior architect/design principal at Lemay. “It is surrounded by a beautiful forest of lush vegetation and large trees. From the outset, one of our goals was to bring that natural beauty inside the building.”

Upon entering the library, the large windows and vertical lighting inspire a sense of clarity and serenity. LED pendant luminaires (MP Lighting) “reflect the library’s unique identity,” Pelletier says. “The entrance zone is the only place where we installed those particular lights,” Pelletier says.

The wood-finished Agora—or hub—is where the ground floor and second floor meet. All areas of the hub, including each step of the staircase, are flooded with natural light. “The Agora is the heart of the building. It’s a traffic area, but also a space for reading and for listening to guest lecturers. We needed to provide uniform lighting, as in the rest of the building, but in this case, it had to be adaptable to different kinds of events,” Pelletier explains. Black cylinder fixtures (Lightheaded Lighting), echoing the stools arranged around the tables, were installed inside black baffles that help dampen sound. The fixtures are almost invisible, allowing them to melt into their surroundings. Dimmers enable the lighting to be adjusted for lectures.

In search of a unifying architectural element across the entire space, the design team used a “spine” motif to connect each functional zone in the building. “We built a large wooden spine on each floor. It snakes through the entire building, connecting each functional zone,” Pelletier says. Whether their destination is a study room, large or small meeting room, desk or reading corner, students can easily find their way.

The wood spine not only runs along the ceiling, but on the floor and is integrated into some of furniture, depending on what the architect wanted to emphasize in different spaces of the library. Lighting is woven into the spine in some areas; for example, small spotlights are mounted on a railing positioned between the spine’s wooden ceiling slats. In addition, downlights between slats are used to illuminate services.

Luminaire style and lighting design was also used to separate each zone and give it its own distinctive ambiance. In the basement, worktables are equipped with low linear LED fixtures (MP Lighting). The lights are attached to the tables along their entire length, allowing students to study comfortably.

The basement now houses roughly 75% of the stacks—many now recessed into the walls. To illuminate these, surface-mounted LED linear fixtures (MP Lighting) were installed around the perimeter. “The basement was a problem, because not only was there zero natural light or sunshine, its ceiling is very low. That makes the space feel dark and cramped. With the new wall-mounted lighting, it no longer feels like a basement,” notes Pelletier. The same linear fixtures highlight the recessed stacks in the wood walls for the ground floor and upper floor, “to increase the gesture of wood.”

Lastly, Lemay didn’t want to leave the 1958 library completely in the past. Retro-style LED ceiling fixtures from Zumtobel illuminate the two reading areas at either end of the building, giving the spaces a warm and relaxing atmosphere. “We wanted to echo the ’60s-vintage lighting fixtures that had been installed in earlier eras,” says Pelletier. “As it happens, the new ones are a near-perfect match for the old fixtures.”


Paul Tarricone

Paul Tarricone

Paul Tarricone has more 25 years of experience in association and business-to-business publishing, specializing in the engineering, design, construction and facilities management markets. Mr. Tarricone currently serves as Editor and Publisher of Lighting Design + Application,... More info »