November 19, 2017

Now that It's the 21st Century… | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

What label should we give to the library of the future?

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

Back in the days of the 20th century, if you wanted to communicate that an idea or object was highly sophisticated, or to just emphasize its coolness factor, you’d simply attach the label “21st century” to it. Academic librarians were certainly susceptible to the 21st century syndrome. Calling it a “21st-century library” became a convenient and simple way to express that a library had advanced technology, a futuristic design, or features neither seen nor tried elsewhere.

Now that we’re actually in the 21st century, I’ve been wondering if labeling any library a “21st-century library” still means the same thing. Every library is a 21st-century library just by virtue of being here—in the 21st century. So, we either need to figure out what it really means to be a 21st-century library or devise a new, more creative way to communicate what we mean when we want to send a message that our library is ready to meet the needs of the members of our user community both today and tomorrow.

In search of a new term
What we need is to come up with a new phrase that does a better job of communicating futuristic and forward thinking qualities in a library facility. Although it seems like a good idea to the folks behind the promotion for the new library building at North Carolina State University, 2010 seems a tad early to start talking about the 22nd-century library. I admit it’s a clever idea, and the point is well taken: it’s ahead of its time, a peek into the future.

But, most building projects are intended to have a shelf life of 40 or 50 years. After that the building has returned its original investment, and it will either need extensive renovation or demolition. It hardly seems reasonable to call a facility that will actually be built in the first quarter of the 21st century a 22nd-century library. It will be a miracle if it even makes it to the 22nd century. We might just want to hold off until, oh, 2075 or so until we start with the 22nd-century library talk.

A better way to “state” it
I used to be the library director at a smaller university. When I started in 1997 the library building was fairly new at just five years beyond its dedication. I can say that I never once heard anyone call it a 21st-century library. It was always referred to as, even in official institution documents, a “state-of-the-art” library building. I like this phrasing. It sends the message that the building has the latest technologies, amenities, and services that meet community members’ expectations.

The sad reality, however, is that as soon as the building is built, it’s not state of the art anymore—or won’t be for long. In fact, after a few more years in that fairly new building—which didn’t even have a hands-on instruction room—it could hardly qualify. I would cringe whenever anyone called it that. That’s why point number five in this article about library design is so crucial for any new building project or renovation. Whatever you plan for today, it’s going to quickly become obsolete in tomorrow’s rapidly evolving technology environment, so the design should be as flexible as possible.

That’s why I think we should go with “a library for the 21st century.” It’s a subtle change, but marks an important difference; it’s not of our time, it serves our time. It makes clear that the library is designed to meet the needs of 21st-century students and faculty, in 2010 and beyond to 2099. It also communicates flexibility. It’s a library for today and tomorrow, or whatever unexpected possibilities the future brings.

Library of the future
You’ll have to forgive me for a column focusing almost entirely on the library. According to David Lankes, 2010 is supposed to be the year of the librarian, not the library. The focus should be on the people who provide the service and not the structure where it all happens. I agree, but if a building is a victim of long-deferred maintenance on campus it’s hard to ignore how a robust library could actually contribute to the success of the people who work there.

If students complain because they have nowhere to plug in their netbooks and smartphones, because they fail to get a wireless signal, or because the next open slot for a study room is a week from Tuesday, you probably could benefit from a new library or a serious renovation. Of course, if you currently have a 20th century academic library, you probably care little about what it’s called as long as someone builds you a new one. After all, there are too few sacred spaces on campus as it is. We need to make sure the ones we do have are worthy of the title.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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