These centers of wisdom are not just about books anymore. They're diversifying—and designers are focusing on their social role
In these determinedly digital times, the idea of a library almost strikes one as quaint. Imagine: a collection of paper and books stored in one building to, well, gather dust.
If your local municipal library does happen to own a copy of a book you actually need (itself not a given in these underfunded times), it's only too likely that it will be checked out anyway. Wouldn't it just be easier to hop online and go to that great library in the sky?
Quite. Except that—like paper itself—the library has not been vanquished by the Internet yet. According to Library Journal, the number of public library projects (160) completed in the U.S. between July 1, 2005 and June 30, 2006 was low, but still robust. Libraries haven't become anachronisms after all.
In fact, many new and renovated libraries are remarkably high-tech, and we aren't just talking WiFi. The William F Ekstron Library in Louisville, Ky., boasts a so-called Robotic Retrieval System, a roaming crane that will find your book among the 1.2 million volumes in the stacks and deliver it to the circulation desk within minutes.
Some libraries are leading examples of sophisticated green design: Norman Foster's library at Freie Universität in Berlin relies on natural ventilation 60% of the year. And while the Lakeview Terrace branch of the Los Angeles Public Library is the only library in the U.S. to hold Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification, you can bet it won't be the last.
Many of these libraries have also experienced record attendance. While some people come to take in the often dramatic architecture, much of the increase can be explained by something else: a sense of community. As it happens, a library is about more than books, and forward-thinking architects and designers have emphasized the library's social role.
Seattle's Central Public Library, by the Office of Metropolitan Research, is a prime example. Before designing the building, architecture firm OMA analyzed the various activities organized and offered by the library. They found that access to books and media represented just one-third of the library's function, with nearly two-thirds of activities reflecting the library's social role as a place for reading groups, computer classes, database training, and public lectures.
The building offered a nonpartisan, nonreligious venue where people could congregate to talk about difficult subjects such as end-of-life care (which will be discussed in an upcoming medical lecture series). Without even realizing it, librarians were already providing a cultural service that went far beyond lending books and periodicals.
As such, OMA's design emphasized the potential for social interaction, offering public spaces and areas such as a "living room" where visitors, readers, and browsers could casually congregate. Then, of course, there was the much-lauded design for the medium itself, including the innovative book spiral, a contiguous ramp along which books are lined by Dewey decimal number.
"The public saw [the library] as being about our whim and ego," says Joshua Prince-Ramus, then OMA's lead architect on the project and now the principal of REX, of the initial reaction to their bold design, which he admitted was an "unusual building" for a public library. But it found favor with the people who mattered the most: "It was defended by the librarians."
"I was just reading a biography of Ben Franklin which pointed out that much of his success in the courts of Paris during the American Revolution occurred at two o'clock in the morning in a tavern. That's where the information flowed—and that's what's happening in libraries now," remarks Jefferson B. Riley, FAIA, partner of Connecticut-based architecture firm Centerbrook Architects & Planners and the chairman of this year's AIA-sponsored Library Building Awards.
Books By the Mile
"Sociability is becoming a more important aspect in library design than it ever was. It used to be that a quiet area, with lots of stacks and a hushed environment, was the rule. Now library design is often based on more active, noisier spaces, with people sitting along the edge of traffic patterns."
But even if libraries are about more than printed materials, books and other forms of information are still important. The Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, contains 530 miles of shelves, and its collection grows at a rate of roughly 10,000 items (including photographs, maps, musical scores and recordings, and manuscripts) a day.
Meanwhile, librarians at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City estimate that its collection increases by an average of 4,100 rolls of film, 700 books, and 16 electronic resources each month. All of which is to say that in an age shaped by access to information and social networks, libraries might be more relevant than ever.