Defining the Library

Location: The British Library, 2017


'Library’ is defined as a “building or room containing collections of books... for use or borrowing by the public...” (Soanes, 2001) Deconstructing this definition, it is difficult to gain consideration of spatial configuration, design features and experiences. 






















Fig.1. Interior of the British Library (2017) 

What was once a taboo to mutter a sound in the library, modern mix-use libraries, such as the British Library (1973) are now encouraging discussion. Spaces to eat and drink, and shared desks are used for meetings. (Fig. 1) Books are archived in the basement level, which must be requested by registering with a Reader’s Pass. Generally, in the modern digital age, the way society are consuming information is changing. In this post, Space Syntax theoretical concepts will be tested to analyse configuration, specifically to the ground floor level of the British Library, to question how these theories constitute to defining the library.

To distinguish real buildings from the unlimited possibility of buildings, in ‘Space is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture’ (1996) Hillier suggests a theoretic concept named generic function. Generic function is the first ‘filter’ to which buildings are designed, which explores “human occupancy of buildings” (Hillier 1996: 223) prior to human activities and a buildings’ functional programme. To occupy space is to be aware of the relationship of space, to acknowledge the fact of movement in space, and intelligibility to understand this. The remaining two filters considers cultural aspects, and the individual properties of a building.

To understand generic function and affordances of spatial configuration for social usage, Theory of Partitioning and Theory of Space Types is explored. 

























Theory of Partitioning examine gains of depth depending on the strategic location of a partition, a ‘wall’ or ‘block’, which prevents access from one space to another. King’s Library (Fig. 2) is highlighted in the centre of the largest open area. As this one partition is placed controlling on an alignment, it adds more depth than one placed peripherally. This is an example of principle of centrality. Moving around the partition, more depth is gained, portraying a constrained visitor experience.

Theory of Space Types demonstrates links between linear activity and convex spaces, “which no straight line drawn between any two points goes outside the space.” (Hillier and Hanson 1984:97) Placing ‘nodes’ on convex spaces and lines to show access, a convex break up is demonstrated (Fig. 3). 

A-Spaces (yellow) contain single links, whereas C-Spaces (red) contain two (or more) links, mostly through-movement and lies on one ring in the sequence. Like C-Spaces, D-Spaces (blue) are similar, however lies on at least two rings, with at least three entrances/exits.

Space types can explain different affordances. The C-Spaces in the corridor area leading up to the Reader’s Reception (1) suggests some strong structuring, with less social potential. With A and D- Spaces, the Box Office (2) and the Folio Society Gallery (3) suggest spaces typical of complex building types. These space types give choice and potential for exploration.

By examining generic function, the ground floor of the British Library contain an occupancy of principle of centrality and multiple space types, a configuration that constrains visitor experience, whilst some areas have potential for exploration. In the British Library, books are not physically accessible to the public, and due to the mixed-use programme, to clarify its’ definition it would be imperative to investigate the social usage and arrangements. Despite its’ definition, a library has potential to be more than a building with a collection of books. A library involves spatial configuration, typology, function and programme. Consequently, the British Library involves movement of books, services and development of social behaviour adapting to modern situations. 

Fig. 2. Theory of Partitioning of the British Library, Ground Floor Level
Adapted from (2017) 

Fig. 3. Theory of Space Types of the British Library, Ground Floor Level
Adapted from (2017) 


Hillier, B. (1996) Space is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture. (Cambridge. Online at:
, Cambridge University Press)

Hillier, B. & Hanson, J. (1984) The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Soanes, Catherine. (2001) ‘Library’ definition. In: The New Pocket Oxford Dictionary. Oxford:

          Oxford University Press Inc.


Fig. 1. Li, Samantha. (2017) Interior of the British Library. [Photograph] In possession of: The author: London.

Fig. 2. Li, Samantha. (2017) Theory of Partitioning of the British Library, Ground Floor Level Adapted from

  [Diagram] In possession of: The author: London.

Fig. 3. Li, Samantha. (2017) Theory of Space Types of the British Library, Ground Floor Level Adapted from

  [Diagram] In possession of: The author: London. 

© 2020 by Samantha Li. All rights reserved.