Public libraries are busier and more popular with patrons than ever. Today’s library is a place for social interaction as well as quiet reading. It is a community cultural center, not simply a repository for books. It is a welcoming building with a design focus on transparency, not a series of isolated spaces.
These changing operations directly affect the layout and organization of library buildings. When libraries construct a new building or transform an existing one, they have the opportunity to create a library that meets these needs.
These changes in the service model also influence how libraries are staffed and how patrons use them. Library patrons expect staff accessibility and opportunities for instruction and learning. So, libraries today must be designed to accommodate more simplified administrative operations and new staff functions.
Eight Ways We Were
We are all familiar with the libraries of the latter part of the 20th century. The library of that period was and had:
- A quiet place (no talking, food, or drink)
- A repository for books, with large areas devoted to stacks and the collections
- An imposing circulation desk for manual checkout and return
- A modest community room
- A guarding-the-books point of view from the staff
- An extensive collection of encyclopedias and other print reference materials
- An inspiring place, often the main reading room
- A civic presence for the library in the fabric of the town
- Oddly, in many settings, libraries like this were still being built only five or ten years ago.
Eleven Emerging Trends
It is often difficult to recognize changing trends while they are still in flux. That said, consider the typical characteristics of today’s 21st-century library. While the library remains an inspiring public building with an important civic presence, many other aspects are different:
- An informal community cultural center
- Transparency among spaces so patrons can be seen and more easily served
- Reading spaces interspersed within the various collections
- Larger and more varied spaces for children and teens
- Community, meeting, and activity rooms of varied sizes
- Daylight in all areas of the building
- Connections to outdoor space
- Spaces devoted to computer and Internet instruction and online research
- Automated systems, and increased staff efficiency
- Flexibility to accommodate future requirements
- The library as a community model for sustainable practice
Nine New Ways We Use Libraries
Emerging trends in library building design dramatically affect how the library performs—and vice versa. Today’s patrons and staff use the library differently:
- Increased number of digital materials reduces space devoted to book collections
- Automated self-checkout reduces or eliminates the circulation desk
- Digital card catalog OPAC stations are scattered throughout the library rather than centralized
- Wireless Internet access throughout the library lets patrons bring their own devices, decreasing the need for banks of stationary computers
- Automated materials handling systems in larger libraries free up staff and shorten wait times
- Staff are more accessible to patrons and less separated from them
- More extensive programming for children and teens is offered
- Cafés induce informal socializing and an enhanced sense of community
- Community room, meeting rooms, and even art galleries have a wider agenda
Whether you build a new library or transform an existing one, do not build the best library of the previous century. Create an environment that facilitates new patterns of interacting, learning, and accessing information and is sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes that inevitably will come.
Peter Gisolfi is a licensed architect and landscape architect and professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. He is the author of Finding the Place of Architecture in the Landscape and is senior partner at Peter Gisolfi Associates, Architects and Landscape Architects. He can be reached at email@example.com