April 22, 2017

MIT’s Future of the Library: Encouraging Social Knowledge-Building

On February 11, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted a discussion on “The Future of the Library” as part of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT. The award is given to a prominent artist in any field who embodies MIT’s commitment to risk-taking, problem solving, and connecting creative minds across disciplines.

This year’s winner, David Adjaye (pronounced Ad-jay), OBE, is an architect who views libraries and other civic buildings as transformative and transforming spaces. His work includes the Whitechapel Idea Store and two branches of Washington, DC’s public library system. These buildings showcase his interest in meshing public and private spaces, seamlessly integrating basic library functions with openness and availability to the community.

David Adjaye, Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT Recipient presents at the Future of the Library panel at MIT. Image courtesy of MIT, photo by L. Barry Hetherington

David Adjaye, Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT recipient, presents at the Future of the Library panel at MIT.
Image courtesy of MIT, photo by L. Barry Hetherington

The discussion—which marked the beginning of Adjaye’s three-month residency—was moderated by Ana Miljački, associate professor, MIT Department of Architecture and included Jeffrey T Schnapp, Harvard professor and director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Nader Tehrani, dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union; Ginnie Cooper, retired director of the DC Public Library (DCPL); and Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries and chair of MIT’s Task Force on the Future of Libraries. Each participant presented individually, then came together for a brief discussion.

A Future of the Library panel was held on February 11 at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From left to right: metaLAB founder Jeffrey Schnapp, Director of MIT Libraries Chris Bourg, architect Nader Tehrani, Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT Recipient and architect David Adjaye, chief librarian for D.C. Public Library in Washington, D.C. Ginnie Cooper, and moderator architectural historian Ana Miljački.  Image courtesy of MIT, photo by L. Barry Hetherington

A Future of the Library panel was held on February 11 at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From left to right: metaLAB founder Jeffrey Schnapp, Director of MIT Libraries Chris Bourg, architect Nader Tehrani, Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT Recipient and architect David Adjaye, chief librarian for D.C. Public Library in Washington, D.C. Ginnie Cooper, and moderator architectural historian Ana Miljački.
Image courtesy of MIT, photo by L. Barry Hetherington

Adjaye talked about a few of his library projects and described how libraries have changed from a place to “deposit public knowledge” to places that house the “process of socializing to gain knowledge.” The Whitechapel Idea Store—a new interpretation of a library, learning center, and local resources center in the middle of London—offers residents a “new vantage point to see their community,” a new perspective on the familiar. “Like a textile is a network of fibers, and a neighborhood is a network of diversity, the library is a network of systems to support the social structure of the neighborhood,” he said. By acting as a network of support systems, a library encourages deeper civic engagement and personal enrichment.

Adjaye’s DCPL branches echo local landscape and architecture styles: a porous “public room” set in a forest (Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library) and a partially elevated building with a community porch underneath (Bellevue/William O. Lockridge Neighborhood Library). That familiarity helps “create a social pride in knowledge sharing…connecting to a bigger idea of what the library can offer over generations,” he added.

Schnapp took a more theoretical tack, asking, “What is a library space now that we can access so much information and storytelling/entertainment through technology? What does a space do that a database cannot?” As libraries shift from a storage function to a social learning function, how do buildings become a “connective tissue” between people and the collections, a “bridge between mind and hand, thinking and making”? He proposed answers in terms of reference, collections, collaboration, “tools for modern living,” and digital “cold spots” that allow for offline contemplation.

Tehrani focused on academic libraries, specifically at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he helped turn a historic bank into a library beneath a new dorm building. Library functions are concentrated around the sides and back of the old building, while the main hall is a thriving “living room” for dorm residents and, by extension, the entire campus.

Cooper extended the ideas of previous speakers from a public library perspective. “Architecture can change the way you think about a thing. If it looks different, you’ll expect it to be different.” She suggested that this can help libraries that want to radically alter their service models and respond to the changing needs—but unchanged perceptions—of their community. “Some people want libraries to stay exactly as they have been,” whether or not those same people need something new from their library. “Architecture helps say that there is something different going on here.”

Bourg used a perfectly timed example—just-released results of research conducted at MIT on the observation of waves in the space-time continuum—to bring particular relevance to the connections between a library and its community’s learning and work. “As we speak, awesome librarians are curating a collection of articles in DSpace that are the foundation research for this discovery. This is what we do here at MIT, and we want to share it.” Bourg continued: “I want libraries to be the spaces that students and the community feel like they are important… Libraries are spaces where [anyone] belongs in the scholarly conversation.”

During the discussion period, each panelist spoke about “the future” as it related to libraries. Cooper’s formula was the most pragmatic: “Here’s how you plan for the future. You zoom in. What you can figure out is probably going to happen, the world we can see coming. And you zoom out to the far-out wild future where you have no idea what’s coming. Imagine a future where people don’t read [or need to read]. What would a library be then?”

Adjaye ended with a broader view: “We have an opportunity to create a forum where technology doesn’t have to have [an] elitist image. It becomes the new public square. It’s a more sustainable future.”

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