Designed by husband-and-wife architects Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson and MJ Long, the British Library was the largest UK public building project of the 20th century. When it opened in 1978 it bought together previously dispersed reading rooms and collections onto the site of the old Somers Town rail depot west of St Pancras Station. Colin St John Wilson said, ‘It is the essence of the Library to grow’ and grow it certainly does. The site has developed and now attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year. 

Yet for such a huge and important building it didn’t have strong presence on Euston Road. This was among the problems the British Library asked us to solve. Legibility of the site was recognised as an issue when the building was commissioned. 

It’s a wedge-shaped site that narrows towards the main ornate gated entrance on Euston Road and there’s a large open public space that was a planning requirement in the original scheme. We commissioned Dr Andrew Barker – a specialist in ethnographic studies – to examine who was using the spaces and how.

What Dr Barker found was that the main entrance was underused. It is a stepped entrance without an obvious reward at the top – no view of something awe-inspiring, just sky – human behaviour studies show that people like to see what reward they will receive for putting in effort, whether it’s physical or emotional. Most people used secondary entrances off the piazza and many people who used the piazza were simply taking a shortcut to St Pancras station or using the space for meeting and relaxation.

We analysed the existing streetscape, visitor approaches and sightlines to understand what the British Library and its entrances along Euston Road needed to be more visible. In response to our observations, we repurposed existing banner sites at high level to identify the Library more clearly. We also dedicated the low level information panels exhibitions and events for passers-by. Attracting visitors to exhibitions is an important aspect of the library’s work.

The piazza simply needed to be decluttered and essential information bought together under the strong visual identity of the British Library. It is an enjoyable and well used space, just what the original planners wanted it to be. What’s important is that people using the space understand where they are and feel included in the people who are welcome to visit and use the Library.

We also designed and added additional digital displays in an underused entrance to the piazza off Euston Road. It’s now a welcoming, inviting and informative entrance. 

The British Library is a confident symbol of the importance of all libraries and stands as one of the world’s greatest centres of knowledge, accessible and welcoming to all.