In an age of privatisation and digitalization, when libraries have been fighting tooth and nail for their place as an essential piece of community infrastructure, there’s something of an identity problem. The idea of a physical repository for communally-owned printed information storage has a few challenges in the post-internet era, and it’s not simply a branding problem but also a practical problem of how to provide a changing community service. I was intrigued when The Atlantic’s Cities pushed out two articles showing very similar new library designs, across the country from each other, aimed at different populations – yet looking and functioning in a very similar fashion.
In Harlem, the Hamilton Grange branch of the NYPL has devoted an entire floor to creating a space for teens. It’s a bright, open plan space with areas for lounging, gaming, chatting, grabbing a snack, and exam prep. (There are more photos and discussion over at The Atlantic: Cities.) It’s a wonderful-looking space: flexible, modern, simple. And also quite a non-traditional space for a library, where gaming, socializing, and food tend to be taboo. There used to be a lot of discussion about coffeeshops as “third spaces“, and that seems to be what the Hamilton Grange library is trying to provide in their space for teens.
The library system of San Antonio, Texas, had a demographic problem: the population was exploding in a part of the county where they didn’t have funds to put a library branch, and people were spreading out further and further from available facilities. Their solution is the BiblioTech (again, more detail over at The Atlantic), a huge all-digital, book-free facility that serves ebooks, digital content, on-site and borrowable e-readers, and offers computer stations, laptops, tablets, and digital literacy courses.
Part of the goal is to create a model space for regions where there’s a sharp have vs. have-not divide when it comes to availability of reading material and services. It’s relatively quick to get a space like this off the ground, and it fills the technology gap that often goes along with municipalities that can’t afford libraries. It is highly experimental. Libraries have yet to solve all the issues accompanying electronic lending materials, from costs to availability of material to digital literacy, so this is an interesting move to make. As the NPR report points out, not everyone is a fan of bookless libraries, and it’s not all nostalgia for the printed page.
But part of what’s interesting is how similar the design is to Hamilton Grange. Simple, clean, minimalist. Space that can be repurposed and reconfigured. Space for disseminating technological literacy as much as printed literacy. (Not limited to these two projects – even the maker movement is becoming interested in libraries as potential kindred spirits in their mission.) Space that’s focused on meeting places and community gatherings. Libraries seem to be positioning themselves as the high-tech third spaces of the future – and that’s a pretty fascinating transition to watch.