The Relevance of Libraries

Are bookless libraries in our future?

In today’s world of instantaneous information, what relevancy do brick and mortar libraries have in our lives? From ancient times, libraries have been an essential ingredient of all civilizations. While it’s easy to think of them as depositories of old rotting books, nothing could be further from the truth. How they evolve in the 21st-century will be the challenge.

At the same time, there is pressure on libraries to become paperless, all electronic. Already libraries are exploding with computer stations. Architects are taking classes in “Virtual Library Design 101”: libraries without books. Is this possible or even practical?

The world of information exchange is more than the internet and books. Information gathering and exchanging is a public project where subjects come and grow. As our community population changes, so should our libraries. Almost half of today’s users are of Hispanic dissent and 65% of us say closing our local library would hurt the community. Preparing buildings for the information access revolution is an architect’s challenge.

A few years ago, I was commissioned to look at the acoustical challenges at the Napa City/County library. The 60’s building is mostly concrete and uncompromising to the changing tides of uses. It’s just plain noisy. It was a 19th-century brick and mortar solution, ill prepared for the emerging information explosion. Our team recommendations were like band-aids on the decibel levels. Without significant structural changes to reduce all the hard-surfaces acoustical bounce, we could not do much to reduce the noise level. Adjusting concrete walls and bunker-style rooms are always expensive.

Libraries should be designed like shopping centers: flexible and quick to adjust walls and rooms for changing demographics and new information sources. They must adapt to new media sources with spaces or uses not previously considered but easy to adjust to public needs and taste. Electronic data collection and check-out should be easy and quick. I expect in the future there will be “pop up” libraries in shopping centers or farmers markets. On any Saturday, pick up your cabbage, broccoli and reading books in one stop.

Are books obsolete? No, they are essential. All generations are using multiple medias to receive information and read the classics. With few filters on the internet, truth cannot be guaranteed. Libraries are more alive today with information hungry people searching for facts, but also masterpieces of literature. The libraries of the future will be attractive and dynamic: unique public spaces, easy to modify, that allow people to work and study together as teams of collaborators. A recent Pew Research Center data analysis of US library attendance showed that 53% of Millennials use libraries or bookmobiles, compared to 45% of Gen-Xers and 43% of Boomers. They may not always come for the books, but the country’s youngest adults do hang out there. Go figure.

Libraries may be museums of the past, but they will be the incubators of our future.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB