Library futures

Andrew Curry and Victoria Ward write:

Last week Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten talked about their design of Birmingham’s future library as a “living room for the city”. More than just storage, a dynamic space for movement, openness and exchange. In a blog she calls libraries “the cathedrals of our millennia”, which seemed a useful precursor to Saturday’s National Libraries Day

The future of the library is, in some ways, a paradox. So many long term trends are running against it that it is easy to assume that is an anachronism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Such trends include the rise of digital technologies, and the accompanying rise of audio-visual culture; the long wave of individualism since the late 1960s; the shift from public provision to personal provision; the pressures on public expenditure; the emergence of the e-book and the digitisation of books generally. It seems only a matter of time before the library withers away.

But look again, and some other, emerging, trends come into focus. Rising oil prices and greater work flexibility increase the value of the local; the rise of digital rights management fuels campaigns around openness; the number of books published every year continues to rise; issues of access and equity – and affordability – come into sharper focus as one austere year rolls into another; the relationship between the tangible and the digital object becomes increasingly complex; new attitudes to ownership (using, not having) make the library appear as a pioneer.

Look again, and you can start to think that if libraries did not exist, it would be necessary to invent them. But what sort of library would we invent?

For some, the building remains essential: engagement with the library is a ticket to – and a membership card for – a local community.

Some say the building needs to be there, not as “a warehouse of dead books“, but as a place to invent yourself, individually and socially.

For some it is a place of memory – and of memory yet to come, a place of inter-generational commitment, a place of conversation and convocation.

Others focus on its place in the digital world, where the library – founded on the principle of open knowledge – acts as a bulwark against the digital enclosure they see by media and technology companies.

Some see the wealth of digital data that a library holds as a resource waiting to be released, and reconnected, in the way that travel information and data has opened up a once closed world.

Others have a simpler view; as inequality rises, the library has a traditional role to play, of  providing access to all who need it. The symbolism of the library at Zucotti Park and its destruction by New York’s city authorities remain powerful.

Some of these future libraries would complement each other. Some seem to have a common core. Some suggest a fundamentally different model of provision and engagement.

Then there are all the users and non-users of the future: the X-box and BBM generation, students, parents, tomorrow’s refugees and immigrants, businesses (so often left out of library planning), the hackers, nomads, chatterers of our children’s children’s generation.

The purpose of looking at the future, as The Futures Company is fond of saying, is to disturb the present. So Let’s deconstruct the word library for the future so we can understand it differently today. Library is: warmth, safety, books, community, cooperationw advice, support, retreat, memory, meaning, belonging, provocation, enquiry, access, signpost …and so on….

And these words create a different space for the current conversation about the library, in which it becomes meaningful part of the next Britain, as well as a part of the last one.

Victoria Ward is a partner of the knowledge consultancy Sparknow. Thanks also to Sabine Jaccaud. A longer version of this post is on the Sparknow blog. The picture of Charing Cross library is by Victoria Ward, and is posted here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

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