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The Future Of Libraries Has Little To Do With Books

Will public libraries make a comeback?

Photo from Bibliothèque publique d'information ©Vinciane Verguethen.

On a Monday morning between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Paris, the line for modern art museum Centre Georges Pompidou winds around the block. But the patrons waiting in the cold aren’t there to catch a glimpse of a Magritte — they’re young locals queueing for access through the museum’s back door to another attraction: bibliothèque publique d'information, or the public library.

In a digital age that has left book publishers reeling, libraries in the world’s major cities seem poised for a comeback, though it’s one that has very little to do with books. The Independent Library Report — published in December 2014 by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport — found that libraries across the nation are re-inventing themselves by increasingly becoming “vibrant and attractive community hubs,” focusing on the “need to create digital literacy — and in an ideal world, digital fluency.”

Photo from Bibliothèque publique d'information.

Taking into account the proliferation of freelancing, the gig economy, and working remotely (also known as “ technomadism”), the rise of the library as a community hub begins to make sense. Cities are increasingly attracting location-independent workers, and those workers need space and amenities that expensive and unreliable coffee shops simply can’t provide enough of.

Image via Ferguson Municipal Library/Instagram.

Furthermore, when one considers the most vulnerable and underserved city-dwellers are also those who generally don’t have access to the internet, the need for a free and publicly connected space becomes even clearer. A beautiful example of the important civic role libraries play took place during Ferguson’s recent upheaval, when the local and under-staffed library opened its doors and became a community haven while most schools and businesses were shuttered.

According to a 2013 Pew poll, 90% of people said their community would be negatively impacted if their local library closed. But if libraries are going to survive the digital age, they need to be more about helping patrons filter vast quantities of digital information rather than merely accessing analog materials. Good news came for U.S. libraries in November 2014, when FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced a 62% increase in spending on high-speed internet for schools and public libraries.

When it comes to this need for connectivity, Britain’s library report said that a “WiFi connection should be delivered in a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas, etc.” In addition, it recommends that far from the bookish and dowdy stereotypes of yore, “the 21st-century librarian will need to be more of a community impresario with digital and commercial expertise who can champion their communities’ needs.” The report suggested that libraries focus less on loaning physical books and more on widening access via loaning of e-books, which the report noted was up by 80% in Britain from 2013.

Halifax Central Library. Photo from Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects.

Also in 2013, the first bookless public library in the United States opened in San Antonio, Texas. The city’s BiblioTech offers an all-digital, cloud-based collection of more than 10,000 ebooks, plus e-readers available for checkout. Located in San Antonio’s under-served South Side, the BiblioTech provides an important digital hub in a city with a population that still struggles to connect to wireless internet. And last month saw the opening of Canada’s Halifax Central Library, designed by world-leading Danish design firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects. With its auditorium, meeting space for entrepreneurs, multiple cafes, adult literacy classes, and gaming facilities, actual books seemed like an afterthought.

And while it’s not all good news — one of America’s oldest public libraries, the Darby Free Library in Pennsylvania, struggled to stay open last year — reimagining the library as a gathering of people rather than a collection of books bodes well for the institution’s future.

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