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A History of the Future Library

by on June 16, 2016

Libraries have long been a important social institutions. One only need reflect on the famed Library of Alexandria, for instance, to understand its important place. The library has indeed had to shift its duties and focus to remain relevant in each successive era and each respective culture. This has never been truer than in the twenty-first century, especially in the United States. The changing role and nature of the American library is the topic of a recent gathering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Back in February, as part of the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts honor, MIT convened a panel of various experts to discuss the changing needs of libraries, particularly areas fostering collections, research, public engagement, and technology. The purpose of the panel was to honor the award winner and utilize the expertise of architects, librarians, archivists, and other relevant professionals to help all libraries move into the future as integral parts of the public sphere. While essentially a discussion of experts, a meeting of minds, this panel served to foster a conversation which should ultimately lead to solution, as one panellist shared about his architectural library success in London and Washington, D.C.

This panellist was this year’s award winner, David Adjaye. The panel helped kick off his three-month residency at MIT. Adjaye is an architecture with an understanding of the transformative nature of libraries and other information spaces. He designed the Whitechapel Idea Store in London as well as two branches of the Washington, D.C., public library system. The McDermott Award is given each year to outstanding artists in any field who demonstrate MIT’s commitment to, in part, problem solving and advancement of creative minds. Adjaye certainly fits the bill with his unique architectural library designs, as well as his belief that libraries should be a social place where one can gain knowledge.

The panel’s moderator was Ana Miljacki, an MIT associate professor in the Department of Architecture. The other panellists included Jeffrey T. Schnapp, a Harvard professor and director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Nader Tehrani, dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union; Ginnie Cooper, the retired former director of the D.C. Public Library; and Chris Bourg, the MIT libraries director and the chair of MIT’s task force on the Future of Libraries. Each professional had the chance to present independently, after which they all came together for the discussion featuring Adjaye.

Perhaps the biggest result of this panel discussion was the renewed focus on how to keep library momentum as the twenty-first century advances. Adjaye’s ideas have worked well at the Whitechapel Idea Store, for instance, and his view of the library’s importance as a social knowledge space were supported by the other panellists. For instance, Bourg reflected the recurring theme of Adjaye’s work when he noted during the panel that he wants “libraries to be the spaces that students and the community feel like they are important.” He added, “Libraries are spaces where [anyone] belongs in the scholarly conversation.”[1] Each panellist spoke of the future and libraries, leaving many fitting remarks; Cooper’s, however, resounds strongly: “Imagine a future where people don’t read [or need to read]. What would a library be then?”[2] Adjaye finished the discussion with his encompassing and welcoming view: “We have an opportunity to create a forum where technology doesn’t have to have [an] elitist image,” he stressed. “It becomes the new public square. It’s a more sustainable future.”[3]

It is these words library professionals must remember as the new century progresses. Where once libraries served primarily to retain knowledge in the form of scrolls, then bound volumes, today it has evolved to serve all manner of users in a variety of ways, from printed books to computer class, from STEM-oriented makerspaces to children’s storytime. Instead of being a repository for a select group of people, libraries are, as Adjaye reminds, a social gathering hub, a learning center for all. Collaboration with architects, professors, and a variety of professionals will result in smarter library design, greater outreach, and higher digital and traditional literacy. Adjaye’s pioneering work ensures the future of libraries, from the practical mind of an architect. This panel discussion also reminds library professionals that information literacy comes in a variety of forms, beyond only books. To remain relevant and helpful, libraries must evolve to the needs of the people and remain true to the pursuit of information access for all. If library and information professionals can harness this spirit of collaboration and devotion to the user, the future of libraries will always be secure.

Further Reading
  • al-Qarawiyyin Library Set to Reopen Once Dust Settles from Renovations

[1] Chris Bourg, “MIT’s Future of the Library: Encouraging Social Knowledge-Building” by Jennifer Koerber, Library Journal, March 3, 2016.
[2] Ginnie Cooper, ibid.
[3] David Adjaye, ibid.

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