Renaissance of libraries
New heyday

The Future of the Library
The Future of the Library | © raumlaborberlin on behalf of Kulturprojekte Berlin

Hardly anyone still prophesies the end of the libraries. Instead, the discussion is about how to support them for the benefit of all. A thoroughly optimistic summary of our series “The Future of Libraries”.

By Samira Lazarovic

What about Google? What about Artificial Intelligence? Will there still be books in future? Who goes to a library when the world of knowledge is available to him on a screen with one click?
“One thing that makes me really happy about the current state of libraries – and unfortunately this could be related to the current difficult global situation – is that over the last couple of years I've seen people get over these kinds of questions”, said Nate Hill of the Metropolitan New York Library Council in an interview with the Goethe-Institut. He maintained that people are much less interested in dealing with the question of the next technological toy that could supplant libraries than in topics such as information distribution, equal rights in research and the like.

Inclusion, Diversity, Climate Change

In fact, in recent years it has again been discussed whether libraries could be socially beneficial not only in teaching reading competency but also in treating related topics such as inclusion, diversity or climate change. More and more in these contexts, people are relying on the accumulated knowledge of libraries. They have developed into places where not only an awareness of these problems can be created, but also a solution to them can be found together.
“The library of the future will be a platform and organizer for linking, sharing and developing knowledge. In addition, libraries will play a special role in the increasingly multi-ethnic immigration society” said, for example, the Next Library Conference, which took place in Berlin in September 2018 and contributed inspiring thoughts to our series on the future of libraries.

Participation in Cultural and Public Life

There are virtually no limits to the questions of how to do this: in addition to traditional work with books and other media, libraries impart knowledge in various languages, offer access to the digital world and social media, information on fake news and much more. Last but not least, libraries are among the few non-commercial public places. On this year's “Black Friday”, the traditional ringing in of the holiday retail shopping season, many American libraries advertised tongue-in-cheek that they offer extreme discounts all year round, with free access to books, media and more. “For some, libraries are places of retreat; for others, they make participation in cultural and public life possible in the first place – regardless of income”, wrote Leonard Novy, journalist and political scientist, in the opening text of our series.
The Dutch architect Francine Houben is convinced that “libraries have no future only if they are seen as passive book depots”, and she and her architect office Mecanoo place people at the centre of their designs for libraries. Other examples, such as the “Chocoladefabriek” in Gouda, the Netherlands, show how modern architecture is increasingly helping libraries open up to their public, moving away from being bastions for a few to becoming common spaces for all. Traci Engel Lesneski, director of the American architect office MSR, sees libraries as a reflection of their community: “As an institution for inclusive organizations, they should be designed to serve the widest possible intersection of people.”

Libraries: Indispensable in turbulent times

However, creating the greatest possible intersection is relevant not only in the design of the buildings but also in the selection of library staff. “It's unfair to expect anyone to be an off-the-cuff expert in digitization, integration and inclusion”, says Nate Hill. This is why libraries need many different types of librarians and good networks to track down the experts.
Spectacular architecture and impressive networks of experts are likely to remain limited mainly to big cities. Elsewhere, libraries will probably continue to have to bear up under budget cuts and staff shortages over the coming years. But the view that libraries are indispensable in these politically and socially turbulent times will more and more boost the whole sector in the next few years. “If libraries did not exist, they would have to be invented”, writes Leonard Novy. And, fortunately, today they are more than willing to reinvent themselves.