In history, libraries symbolized a gathering of knowledge. The original Library of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and home to many philosophers until it burned down. Today, we still have iconic libraries like The Library of Congress, home to more than 32 million books and 61 million manuscripts, and the New York Public Library which holds more than 50 million items. Through the years the library has changed. For many kids, their local library has been both entertainment center and babysitter. Now you are as likely to find a café in a library as you would DVDs.
It is heartening to hear that people still regard libraries as an important part of their community – but it’s not the kind of library that we have known. People want new services, digital resource – and books? Well, they’re almost secondary.
In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center:
- People see the library as part of the ‘educational ecosystem’, and they think it should offer services and resources to support learning and advance education.
- People think the library should improve digital literacy, such as by offering programs to help people learn how to use digital tools and new technologies.
- People are interested in seeing an expanded mission for libraries, one that involves, for example, providing resources for business development and enhancing workforce skills, and offering services to help recent immigrants and other key groups requiring support.
- Approximately one-third of people say that closing their local library would have a major impact on them and their family.
So what does all of this mean? One of the big questions posed by the researchers is what might happen to the buildings. If libraries no longer demand large, centralized spaces, could they be replaced with a handful of coffee-shop-sized locations spread across town? An article by Adrienne Lafrance on The Atlantic suggests this could be the model for the libraries of the future. Hard to imagine how one might repurpose these beautiful, bespoke libraries featured on Architectural Digest.
Lafrance makes a good point about our current relationship with books. While in the past they might have served as one of our main forms of entertainment, they now occupy a cultural space that for many people, involves having a lot of them around and on display, but not necessarily reading them. In many ways, this mirrors the sentiment towards libraries that’s coming through in the Pew research findings. People like having them around, and they’re integral to their sense of community, but books are somewhat sidelined as people are increasingly seeing the main purpose of libraries as spaces where people can gather and learn.
Books aside, the concept of a library has already changed in response to our increasingly digital world. You can browse catalogues online and set up at a library workstation that offers free Wi-Fi. People continue to appreciate their local library – like I said, they like having them around – but as technology is changing the way information flows, there may be room for some reconfiguration and repurposing.