Despite rumors to the contrary, the ever-rising popularity of the computer and the e-book has not sounded the death knell for public libraries. Indeed, the reverse is true. Although the Internet may make information ubiquitous, the more time people spend in isolation at their computers, the more they hunger for civic engagement. Libraries always have had a role in bringing communities together. Now, more than ever, they are serving multiple roles—as after-school youth centers, senior centers, job centers, and extensions of the town square. In many cases, libraries share locations with schools or community centers. As the pace of change in modern life accelerates, library design is changing too.
Inviting in Children
With school systems struggling with budget cuts, public libraries play a crucial role in education. It is important that libraries be inviting and engaging spaces for children, in order to engender a love of reading, learning, and exploration that will prepare kids for success in school and beyond. Modern libraries embody the playful nature of free-choice learning while providing expert guidance through the wild frontier of the Internet.
To attract younger patrons, many new libraries are introducing youth-friendly themes. The Cerritos Library in Cerritos, Calif., designed by Glendale, Calif.-based CWA AIA, Inc., has a “Save the Planet” theme. The children’s library includes a 15,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, a full-size replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a Banyan tree. Sounds of the rainforest play in the background.
Libraries also are cultivating teens, creating separate areas that encourage socializing and collaboration. Trends in education are shifting toward teamwork, so providing spaces where students can work together on projects makes sense. Movable modular furniture and booth seating around circular tables replace fixed-seat individual workstations. Some libraries also offer video production studios, available to the entire community.
Involving teens’ input in the design of their spaces can go a long way toward giving them a place where they feel at home. The teen area at the Tustin Public Library, designed by San Francisco-based Field Paoli, incorporates computer workstations, small group study rooms, and young adult–oriented collections. Giving teens their own designated area helps screen the rest of the library from noise, but more importantly, it gives them a sense of ownership and comfort. In any case, libraries as a whole are no longer devoted to silence as they once used to be. At the new Salt Lake City library, staff wear buttons reading “No Shhhh.” In most new designs, a few dedicated quiet zones provide room for concentrated work, while the rest of the library is open to conversation and, in many cases, food and beverages.
Technology = Mobility
Libraries already are offering free electronic copies of books for use in e-readers. Many libraries have implanted radio frequency identification chips in books and have installed factory-style materials sorting systems to speed check-out and check-in. The District of Columbia Public Library offers an iPhone app that replaces the traditional library catalog. But the impact of technology is most evident in patron spaces. The popularity of wireless networking has reduced the need to provide hard-wired Internet connections at tables throughout the library. Rather than offering fixed workstations with desktop computers, many libraries now allow patrons to check out laptops. Users can sit anywhere they find comfortable to use their own or library-provided gear.
With the current increased emphasis on sustainable design, there is a trend toward incorporating natural lighting in libraries to a greater extent than before, which makes controlling glare a challenge. Because the new generation of touch-screen devices such as the iPad are usually held with the screen parallel to the ceiling, high overhead lighting can be problematic. A combination of indirect daylight and individual task lighting tends to work better.
Flexibility for the Future
Because of the increasingly rapid pace of change in modern life, libraries need to build in flexibility to accommodate future changes. The best option is to create open areas that can be reconfigured as needs change. More libraries than ever are relying on easily movable furniture and fixtures—even shelving on wheels—allowing service points to move for specific events or in response to changing patterns of usage. Movable partitions incorporating extensive glass allow for the subdivision of space to suit different uses, while still making it easy for library staff to observe what’s going on. Library staff also are more mobile, wearing wireless headsets and roving through the library rather than sitting behind a reference desk.
Libraries will continue to evolve. A number of libraries already have. In Berkeley, Calif., the South Branch library offers a tool lending library, allowing people to check out anything from a screwdriver to a cement mixer. Given the tough economy, similar kinds of lending options may catch on. Library parking lots also would make ideal pods for car or bike sharing programs. The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in North Carolina has partnered with the arts community to develop a children’s creativity center called ImaginOn. The Contra Costa County Library in Northern California has placed ATM-style automatic book dispensers at BART stations. Libraries need to continue to rethink themselves, building on their long legacies as guides to bodies of knowledge and as focal points within the community that help bring people together.