October 14, 2019 was a special day for the Vikram Sarabhai Library (VSL), IIM Ahmedabad. The 2019 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation were announced that day, and the Institute's efforts to restore and upgrade its iconic Library had been rewarded with the Award of Distinction. Tai Kwun - Centre for Heritage and Arts of Hong Kong SAR, China, won the Award of Excellence, and VSL was one of three efforts to be honoured with the Award of Distinction. Twelve other initiatives received awards of merit, honourable mentions or awards for new design. The Jury aptly encapsulated the objectives, achievements and outcomes of the VSL restoration and upgradation project in its citation:
"The restoration of the monumental Vikram Sarabhai Library heralds an important step forward in the preservation of 20th century architecture in India. The linchpin of Louis Kahn's iconic Indian Institute of Management campus in Ahmedabad, the library was rehabilitated from a state of extensive material dilapidation. Through careful studies and extensive modeling, the conservation team has conquered a range of difficult technical challenges to extend the life of the composite brick and concrete structure with its distinctive geometric forms. The project has recovered configurations and uses of space in line with the architect's original vision while upgrading functionality to ensure that the library is ready to meet contemporary requirements and provide universal access. With Modernist heritage enjoying increasing acclaim, but still facing the widespread threat of demolition, this initiative promises to have major policy impact within Ahmedabad and throughout India."
Why the restoration and upgradation?
In recent years the Institute has been witnessing significant growth in student population, programmes being offered, modes of programme delivery, diversity of topics researched, and so on. But the addition of 'new generation' faculty members, with their preference for emerging technologies, was a significant driver of change. The one factor that has remained unchanged over the decades at the Institute is the faculty members' consistent use and active involvement in the development of the Library. And VSL has always been responsive to the academic community's demands. This response was facilitated by the technology proliferation in education and research in general. The ways and means of accessing the library had changed. The operations, services and focus of the library had to change if VSL was to meet the emerging needs of the library users.
While these trends were taking shape, conversations on conserving the campus buildings were gaining traction at the Institute. The heritage campus needed to be restored due to the physical and routine wear and tear over the years. The management responded with a major "campus restoration project", and VSL was one of the first projects to be taken up. The broad objectives of the VSL restoration project were to restore the library structurally and also upgrade its spaces, services and technology. The major challenge that had to be faced was that the Library could not be closed for a long time as its services were integral to the academic learning and teaching at the Institute.
Selecting the restoration architect
The Institute selected Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins, a UK-based firm that had experience in advising on restoration of exposed brick buildings constructed around the middle of the last century, to help develop the RFP (Request for Proposal) for the VSL's restoration. The RFP, developed after extensive research based on site survey and visits by the consultants, was then floated, inviting architects to engage in this project. It was through this process that the renowned firm Somaya & Kalappa (SNK) was selected for VSL's restoration.
Temporary relocation to KLMDC
The project was initiated in early 2014. The Library was shifted temporarily to the KLMDC (Kasturbhai Lalbhai Management Development Complex). This relocation was itself a major project as it involved converting the existing executive education space into a library space. The entire collection of 250,000 physical library items, the furniture and fittings, and the information technology infrastructure had to be shifted.
It was in March 2016 that VSL moved to the KLMDC. All services, except for the physical borrowing or returning of books which was suspended for ten days, functioned normally even during the shifting. All the online services were provided as usual while the library moved physically to the new building. In fact, it was also commendable that the library issued about 50 books to a user (who needed these to meet an academic deadline), when physical shifting of books was happening.
The KLMDC library space was designed and developed in such a manner that it was almost impossible for newcomers to make out that this was a temporary space. All the user spaces that existed in the VSL main building were replicated in the KLMDC building. These included the lounge, cyber space, circulation counter, new arrivals, faculty publications display, reading hall, individual carrels, discussion rooms, audio-visual rooms, etc. The temporary VSL was so well embedded in the interesting architecture of KLDMC that it felt the building had been designed for a large academic library.
Before the shifting took place, the plan, design and layout of the upgraded VSL had been finalised. In the meanwhile, TCS Foundation, Tata Consultancy Services, had agreed to support the restoration and upgradation. The planning and finalization of the new layout took more than a year and involved the library committee studying the proposal of the architect in detail. A number of meetings of the library committee with the restoration architect, meetings of the library team with the architect, internal meetings of the library team, collecting feedback from the students and faculty, informal consultations with library experts, meetings of the library team with TCS team and a seminar on library spaces were some of the activities that led to the development of the final layout.
The restored and upgraded VSL
The design of the restored and upgraded library was based on a refined mixture of user feedback, library expertise, architect input and international library trends. The main objectives of the project were:
Restore the main library building structurally to make it safe and durable.
Upgrade the library to make it more relevant in line with global library trends in the technology domain.
Make the library an inviting space to meet the academic needs of its users like learning, research and collaboration.
Provide inclusive spaces and make VSL disabled friendly.
To meet these objectives, the restored and upgraded VSL now offers:
One floor dedicated to collaboration with discussion rooms, discussion pods, collaboration devices like connected displays, writing boards, etc.
Individual carrels for silent study.
Restored main reading hall with multiple reading tables with a wonderful reading ambience.
More natural light, and artificial lighting that provides prescribed lux levels in all areas of the library.
Reduced space for the physical collection and increased space for users.
Flexible and comfortable furniture for seating with wifi connectivity in all areas of the library.
New and bright shelves for stacking and display books, periodicals, magazines and newspapers.
Digital wall and terminals for online access to the book catalogues.
Upgraded terminals in the cyber lab to access online resources.
RFID system to automate the borrowing and return of books.
VR (Virtual Reality) app to explore the library.
Disabled-friendly spaces like cyber lab, distance between shelves, toilets, etc.
Once the work was completed, the library items were shifted back to the VSL building. The restored and upgraded VSL was formally inaugurated on March 11, 2019. The VSL is now a truly hybrid library, blending traditional print resources with digital technologies, and committed to the larger mission of making itself relevant to the research, education, and learning needs of the faculty, students and research community at IIMA.