A New Read on Libraries

A New Read on Libraries

By Ayana Byrd

Beverly Hill's Children's Library
SourceCourtesy of BeverlyHills.org


Libraries of the future are going to be about more than a love of books.

By Ayana Byrd

Public libraries are quickly proving to be the little engines that could. As the Internet continues to wreak havoc on the book, magazine and newspaper industries, it seems logical that libraries would be all but forgotten by people who can access the info and literature that they want with a computer. Yet studies show that people — and not just older people who don’t go online, but 67 percent of tech-savvy 16- to 29-year-olds — are using libraries frequently. They may not be checking out as many books as they once did, but they’re still counting on the library to keep its doors open.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean libraries can sit back and smugly think they don’t have to worry about modernization. That’s why last month San Antonio opened a $2.4 million dollar project, the country’s first bookless library.

Come again?

An artist's rendering shows computer stations at the new BiblioTech bookless public library in Bexar County, Texas. T

Artist’s rendering of San Antonio’s BiblioTech bookless public library

Source Bexar County

If it has 10,000 e-books, 500 e-readers, study rooms, children’s areas and a cafe but not a single bound book available for checkout, can it still be called a library? Judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, a key player behind the Bexar County Digital Library, argues that yes, indeed, it can. “Who would’ve thought 20 years ago we’d be where we are today?” he asked Time magazine about the way technology has changed people’s reading habits.

While this is one of the most daring attempts at thinking outside the librarian box, it’s not the first. Chicago has media rooms in its libraries where visitors can create podcasts, record and mix music and get help with digital media projects. Not only that, but Chicago public libraries have even taken the leap into 3D printing by offering public access to a pop-up fabrication lab. Arizona is looking into ways to lure entrepreneurs and small businesses into setting up shop in its libraries, turning hushed corridors into co-working spaces

Far from being a dull institutional backwater, library design has become a mark of distinction for cities and architects alike.

Libraries are rethinking what it means to connect patrons with information, but they’re also revitalizing the notion of libraries as inviting, dynamic civic spaces where people want to be. Bright, natural light, playful theme rooms and family-friendly features have made the Beverly Hills Children’s Library’s $3.2 million renovation a hit with parents and kids. The reading lounge of the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University at Raleigh takes in a panoramic view through three stories of windows flanked by a spacious outdoor terrace, and it boasts sculptural interiors with collaborative work spaces. A $70 million restoration project at St. Louis’ Central Library resulted in an 83 percent gain in public space, including a 250-seat auditorium, a teen lounge and a seven-story atrium. Meanwhile, controversy still surrounds the Brooklyn Public Library’s announcement last winter that it was shutting down outdated buildings and replacing them with architecturally savvier spots that mix public space with private dwellings. 

Rendering of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Rendering of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Source Adjaye Associates

Far from being a dull institutional backwater, library design has become a mark of distinction for cities and architects alike. Washington, D.C., didn’t just decide the city needed new libraries; it decided that it needed the best. So D.C. hired David Adjaye, a big-deal British architect who is not only designing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, but who has said that libraries “should offer places for people to see beautiful things, be inspired, just exist, engage or just do their own thing.”

The brain behind D.C.’s library overhaul is Ginnie Cooper, D.C. chief librarian, who hired Adjaye after visiting the Idea Store in London, a space that includes a library, a coffee shop and a dazzling all-glass exterior. “Those libraries are amazing! They show that both the client and the architect were thinking outside of the box.“ So, she hired the architect, saying, “I loved the partnership that I imagined had existed…and – indeed – that is exactly what I found when I worked with David.”

Libraries should offer places for people to see beautiful things, be inspired, just exist.

Last June the buildings opened in the southwest and southeast D.C. communities to the type of community excitement and increased visitor numbers that San Antonio is hoping its bookless experiment will generate. 

In an age when we’re all digitally connected, this resurgence in libraries reminds us that our communities still crave public meeting spaces, inviting places where we can connect face to face, collaborate and even create together. Yet with all the architectural heft being called upon to reimagine the library as a sweeping public space, we’re still glad to see they make nooks to shelter the faithful reader who’s been there all along, curled up with a book or a glowing screen.

Think of it as the book nerd revolution.