Last Saturday in Utah hundreds of locals formed a human chain to move 50,000 books from one old public library into a new one. With many libraries around the world facing threat of closure and others undergoing million-dollar revamps, we wonder: what will the library of the future look like?
After 123 years and much local protest, Clapham Library closed at the end of May. The old Clapham library is just one victim of recent government cuts on many institutions around the country. But not all of these have lead to pulped books and boarded up windows. Since Clapham Library closed, in fact, another library has opened underneath a newly built housing complex in town. As for the old library, this has been transformed into a community arts space led by local initiative Omnibus. So while many other libraries may not be experiencing such happy endings, constant pressure of closure is, incidentally, drawing attention to libraries as a staple part of their community.
The New Clapham Library Building
‘A good library’ wrote Lemony Snicket, ‘will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up late reading them.’ Millions of mouse clicks later, Snicket’s romantic vision is fast fading, but at its heart lies an enduring faith: that humans will always seek knowledge. This is an insatiable appetite most readily and reliably filled by consuming pages – whether it is the pages of a book, a digital tablet, or a webpage. It is not only the function of libraries that are evolving but also the actual library spaces, the very books and mortar, undergoing a transformation. The new Guggenheim-inspired Library Building on Clapham High Street, built below 136 new apartments, is just one example of how public services can interact with a city’s current political, geographical and digital landscape. Moreover, this re-evaluation of the library space has spawned some truly innovative designs all around the world.
Taltal Public Library (image via archdezart.com)
From the inside, the ultra-modern Taltal Public Library in Chile looks like it could have been designed by Apple. This is not to suggest that there are ipads instead of books or robots in place of librarians, it’s just that the library is so very very white. Considering its location in the small rustic coastal town of Taltal, this sounds like it might stand out like the white elephant in the town. But Chilean archiects Murua-Valenzuela have consciously worked with the surrounding aesthetics, producing something that is not a million miles away from the seaside look. Both low fish-tank shaped windows and glass panelling inside appear to mimic an aquarium; as for the exterior, the colour palette camouflages with the white Chilean villas and terracotta roofs of its neighbours.
The Taltal is just one example of a modern library successfully fusing with the traditional. Without visually imposing on the town, its design is very much based on utility, with a tall ceiling for optimum reading light, and bookshelves that do not extend above hand’s-reach. But then why would they need to? This, after all, is not a library for an anthropologist requiring a top-shelf book on the occult, but a library for locals and school children. Similarly, the New Stuttgart City Library in Germany – while it may look like a penitentiary by day (and a neon Rubik’s cube by night) – is also very much about accessibility. Inside, the Escher-style staircases that join the five levels and the funnel-shaped centre (modelled on the ancient Pantheon) actually allow visitors to navigate around each floor with an exposed view of the rest of the library.
The New Stuttgart City Library (image via sinbadesign.com)
From the uber-plastic to the bare organic: in the rural village of Ban Tha Song Yang in Thailand, a two-storey library has been built for the 42 children of the Safe Haven orphanage using natural lava stone, concrete bricks, wood and bamboo. With the ground floor for books and the upper level for reading and playing, at the heart of this social project (run by 15 Norwegian university students led by Rintala Eggertsson Architects) is to provide the children with a much needed practical learning space. Built using materials from the surrounding landscape, the library also interacts with the community in an environmentally conscious way. ‘We tried to do it as well as possible’, says architect Sami Rintala ‘yet the bamboo parts for instance have to be renewed every ones awhile, which is part of local building tradition.’
Library for Safe Haven Orphange in Thailand (image via designboom.com)
The Liyuan Library in China is another example of a library making the most of local resources, with a structure made of timber and wooden sticks that local villagers gather to fuel their cooking stoves. These organic eco-friendly structures may seem very modern, but they are also reminiscent of the arboreal origin of the paper book, as well as the romanticism of the traditional library. ‘In my mind a perfect library could be a kind of labyrinth or forest where you can get lost in the type of literature or information you want to’, says Rintala, ‘and while getting lost, you are likely to find something new you did not know existed.’
Liyuan Library (image via modernarchitectureconcept.com)
The labyrinthine aspect of visiting the library is something that is not necessarily limited to books alone, but can also apply to online browsing, as one hyperlink leads to another. While ‘getting lost’ is an important part of how libraries can function on a personal level, for the library space to endure in the future it is also important to realise its communal relevance. University libraries are perhaps the best at foregrounding this gathering instinct as many new libraries built on campuses are actually modeling themselves on natural structures. The Hive, opened earlier this month by Her Majesty at The University of Worcester, for example, has a £60 million hexagonal honeycomb design, that mimics the communal space of bees.
The Hive, The University of Worcester (image via thedrum.co.uk)
With the title ‘hive’ or ‘hub’ many universities accentuate the library as the epicentre of their community. The new Venessla Library in Norway, with its rib-cage design, also evokes the notion of being at the heart of its community. More than just providing a lynch pin for the communal, these designs also re-evaluate the library as a digital space. They become less about a corner to curl up with a book and more about a place to sign-in to a public server and start browsing. In other words, libraries are becoming less about borrowing books and more about networking (whether this is social or not).
‘People go to the library to use the internet nowadays’, says Robert Dawson, whose Library Road Trip project took him across America’s libraries for 18 years. ‘I have seen libraries become less about centers for books and more about centers for communities,’ Dawson explains. ‘Poor people without access to the internet come to the library. Often internet access in rural communities is only available at libraries. Sometimes, in small towns the libraries leave on the wifi and people will cluster outside on their laptops to be online.’
image from Public Library: An American Commons by Robert Dawson
While the majority of libraries may be becoming digital spaces, there are other new libraries that have, through their design, consciously chosen not to forget the paper book. The Vallecas library in Spain metaphorically represents the cover and contents of a book from the outside, as its ‘cover’ does not entirely reveal all its contents to passersby. ‘What is really important is knowledge,’ says Vallecas architect, Ibán Carpintero. ‘In the past, libraries were very important places because they were the place where knowledge was kept. Internet and e-books have changed all that. You don´t need anymore to have physical access to the books…But I think the paper will never disappear, and libraries will keep on being important places if they know how to adapt themselves to the future needs of the people.’
Matej Krén’s Idiom
It is impossible to predict the precise future needs of people, and perhaps this is why our generation is so adamant to hold onto the book: such a tangible symbol of human knowledge. Slovak artist, Matej Krén, has even created a tunnel of books sculpture for the entrance of the Prague Municipal Library at Mariánské náměstí. The most extreme foregrounding of the book as the centre of the library, however, is probably happening in Beijing where 460 self-service book machines are now in operation. If this hyper-autonomy of the library-goer (eradicating the need for either a library building or staff) became the norm it would also get rid of the library as a space for gathering. Moreover, it would fatally turn the book into a vending-machine commodity.
‘Libraries are one of the few non-commercial spaces left where people can go and not have to buy something’, says Dawson. This is, essentially, why they are sacred. In terms of both function and design it is clear that libraries all around the world are re-assessing how they need to serve their comtemporary community. There are those, like The British Library, that are converting a large part of their archive and ancient fascimiles into digital format so that more people can access otherwise limited resources. What is most important is that, as move away from these houses of paper, we do not loose any keys of knowledge. So while Lemony Snicket’s ‘not too neat, not too dusty’ ideal of the eternal library may be a bit outdated, as long as taxpayers have this notion in mind they will hopefully always try to preserve their local libraries.
Words by Zara Miller
Featured image by Robert Dawson