Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Some Design Considerations for Future Public Libraries

Here in Washington DC, and in many other cities around the country, old library buildings are being torn down and replaced with new buildings. The architects designing those new buildings are faced with an interesting design challenge: What will public libraries look like over the next 30 years?

Historically, public libraries have been houses of self-learning, with books their central attraction and reason for being. While books will always be a huge part of the library experience, more and more those books will no longer be physical. And so what will a public library look like in 2020, 2030, and 2040? The structures we build today will remain in use for at least 30 years.

More and more public libraries are going to be social spaces and communal learning spaces. So a public library of the future should probably have at least one large meeting room – and perhaps more than one large meeting room. The use of space in the library needs to be as flexible as possible. That means the study desks ought to have wheels on them so that they can be wheeled out of the way when needed. Perhaps the desks can be designed to wheel right back into the stacks, creating the possibility of a second large meeting space.

Libraries need to be designed to be open seven days a week. And one or more meeting rooms needs to have an exterior door, so when the library is closed, meetings can still take place.

Here's one idea that's not so obvious. Public libraries need to have an exercise room, either within the library or within an adjacent building. Why? Because a healthy body is a precondition for a healthy mind. Take this one step further. The exercise machines in the public library can be designed to generate electricity that can reduce the lighting and heating needs of the building. Yes, you need to keep the exercise room quite physically separate from the library reading room so that the reading room doesn't smell like a gym. That can be done. Maybe even make the two buildings separate, but adjacent.

Do you want to see what an exercise machine that generates electricity looks like? Look no further than the Freeplay Weza.

Picture this -- the varsity football team working out three times a week at the public library. Do you think that team could generate some electricity? Or how about the high school cross country team? When I ran cross country in high school, on Sundays I'd head out for a nice 15 mile run. I would have gladly gone down to the public library to generate some electricity, if that had been an option.

Speaking of electricity, it goes without saying that the library ought to have a green design, for maximum energy efficiency. Make the green design open ended, though, so that each year community members can add and improve the design. Perhaps the best design decision an architect can make for a library is to recommend that the library subscribe to MAKE magazine, the popular and scrumptious magazine for do-it-yourselfers. A few minutes with MAKE magazine is all you need to get in the mood for designing things in your own life.

A public library ought to have a stage. Why? Because the performing arts are one of the most vital parts of our community. Yes, we already have performing arts stages in our community, but guess what? You can never have too many stages. A stage is a gathering place where people value each others' talents. More stages mean that more plays get written, that more dance performances take place, that more musical performances take place. If music be food for the soul, let us make libraries soulful places.

Do you see that empty third floor of the library? Let's design that space for FedEx/Kinkos. FedEx/Kinkos gets the space rent free. In exchange, it offers the library one quarter of all profits. Would it be useful for a public library to have a steady stream of revenue from the company up on the third floor? It would. And does FedEx/Kinkos complement the purpose of public libraries, where people need to access and manage information in their lives? It does. How valuable is it to have faxing, photocopying and other digital services right in the same building as a public library? It's invaluable.

At the public library where I work, we once had a very wonderful community event on a Friday evening. After the event I heard a community member express a yearning that the public library be open Friday evenings sometime. “Wouldn't it be nice after a long week of work to head down the public library on a Friday evening to relax?” It sure would. And how about if there were some community members playing some soft guitar off in the corner. And how about if hot chocolate were served? And how about if some volunteer editors showed up to help those writers over there in the writer's corner?

You get the picture. We can design public libraries to have whatever shape or purpose we want them to have. Making those design decisions requires a leap of the imagination. Libraries of the future won't look like libraries of the past. How do you want your library to look? Can we retain the best library traditions of the past while extending those traditions creatively into the digital age? We are the architects of our future and should engage in those design considerations today rather than tomorrow.

Phil Shapiro
The author is a public library worker and public library advocate in the Washington DC metropolitan area. He previously wrote about community content in public libraries.