The opening of The Word, the National Centre for the Written Word, was a welcome fillip to the UK public library sector after years of underinvestment. Is South Tyneside Council’s new cultural centre a sign of things to come?
The Word opened to national acclaim in October 2016, attracting 175,000 visitors in the first four months alone. It boasts an impressive range of facilities including exhibition and digital media spaces, children’s storytelling area and a rooftop terrace with views across the Tyne from its location in the heart of South Shields.

Key to the success of the new library is its design concept, conceived by Newcastle-based architects FaulknerBrowns.

“What was profoundly interesting about this project was the ambition of the council to push the boundaries of what is relevant for a library, and how you attract all groups in society,” said Steve Dickson of FaulknerBrowns.

“Our solution was relatively simple. The aim was to create a sculptural, human-centric aesthetic. We approached this by designing a circular building, based on the leaves of a book, radiating out from a central point. All the active and performance-led activities are located in the central Forum. The intimate and more contemplative areas are located towards the exterior.”

“We used the shelving to divide these two attitudes,” said Dickson. “Bruynzeel supported us with an efficient, effective steel solution for the shelving, with a clean and simple aesthetic.”

FaulknerBrowns were conscious of striking a balance between library as repository and as a creative learning space. “The original brief encompassed a wide variety of information technologies. Although this strategy slightly reduced book numbers, it increased the opportunity to engage with new customers. In the final plans, stock reduced by approximately 12%. However, the skill of the library team ensured their stock was focused and pertinent.”

Whatever they did, it worked. Visitor numbers have quadrupled. Engagement is off the charts: teenage loans are up 800%; dwell time is up 300%.

Could The Word mark a turning point for public libraries? Dickson is convinced. “I believe we have reinvented the model. We have put in facilities for people who would not normally use the space. We’ve created a democratic form to match the last democratic building in our towns and cities.”