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Libraries are thriving in the new social order - Global Furniture Group

Canada Architecture News - Dec 24, 2020 - 19:05   16638 views

Libraries are thriving in the new social order - Global Furniture Group

With a little reading between the lines, it’s clear that libraries aren’t dead. This two-part series will explore how libraries evolve alongside their communities to reflect present-day needs.

Part 1: The Adaptability of the Library

In an age where e-readers are a common sight on public transit, where celebrities are lending their voices to Harry Potter audiobooks, where affordable books can be ordered from the comfort of home, and where years of cuts to public funding have been the norm, you would certainly be excused for thinking the traditional library was on its way out. However, much like vinyl records or Polaroid cameras, statistics now show that libraries are experiencing a 21st century resurgence, thanks in large part to millennials. 

Polls conducted by Gallup and Pew offer evidence that visiting the library has been the most common cultural activity for Americans in recent years. These polls also suggest that 18 to 29 year olds are hitting the stacks more than any other demographic. Speaking on this trend, Fort Worth Public Library Director Manya Shorr offered the following thoughts:

"The library has always been a place where the community gathers and connects, and this has not changed in the past few years. With millennials being the number one users of public libraries, it is clear that even generations who have spent their entire lives online still crave in-person community connection."

While it’s true that there are other options for community events or workshops, such as bars and cafes, libraries maintain one significant advantage - they’re free. The library remains a rare public forum where you don’t really need to worry about paying for anything, unless you’ve got some overdue books on your hands. Libraries are also a place where everyone is welcome.

"This means there is an opportunity to be exposed to people of different values, lifestyles and views. And in a polarized society, such as ours, this is more important than ever," Manya said.

Clearly, the library remains an important community staple and a great place to seek out new knowledge and cerebral stimulation, even for tech-savvy millennials. For a glimpse of the timeless respect that libraries still garner around the world, we can look to the care, funding and resources invested into some of the world’s most beautifully iconic libraries, such as the Tianjin Binhai Library in China, the Carturesti Carusel Library in Romania, or the Municipal Law Library in Germany. To better understand how libraries have earned their cultural status, let’s take a closer look at their historical development.

The evolution of the modern library

So how exactly have libraries continued to thrive in an era where information is so readily available remotely? If we look to history, the answer lies in the fact that libraries have always evolved alongside the cities and neighborhoods they serve, adapting as the needs of the community change and growing increasingly accessible in the process. In the early 1800s, for example, most libraries did not allow patrons to simply walk through and browse the stacks for the latest Dickens opus. Instead, visitors relied much more heavily on librarians for information, as books were organized on inaccessible shelves by surface-level attributes, such as size or acquisition date. 

This all changed in 1876 when American educator, Melvil Dewey introduced a new library system known as Dewey Decimal Classification. Under Dewey’s new system, books were no longer placed on shelves by superficial attributes, but organized by specific topics that were assigned number ranges. Religious texts, for example, would fall between 200 and 300. A refined and standardized version of Dewey’s original classification was eventually developed and the introduction of open stacks allowed anyone familiar with the system to freely explore the library. In turn, the role of the librarian evolved into that of an information scientist, classifying books and helping visitors find useful information.

Today, we have reached a new phase in librarial history. Now, however, the evolution lies not in the realm of information science, but in library design. As so much information can be accessed elsewhere, a greater emphasis is being placed on the design and practicality of the library facilities themselves, in order to appeal to continually changing communal desires. As has always been the case, libraries are still evolving alongside their patrons’ needs, albeit this time in a more style and design-focused way. As Shorr put it: 

"Space in the 21st Century Library is at a premium, and the design of new buildings is critical. No longer do the books get the best space and the natural light; that is now where we put comfortable seating, program, study or conference rooms, and more."

How libraries stay relevant 

Libraries have quite literally been around for centuries. The great ancient libraries at Alexandria or Constantinople were built with a spirit of grandiosity intended to inspire a sense of awe towards the pursuit of knowledge. Much later, the Dewey Decimal Classification system offered greater library accessibility, eventually leading to the introduction of reading rooms and, more modernly, areas for computers. Libraries have consistently adapted to ever-evolving physical and conceptual hurdles.

In recent times, we’ve seen an increasingly creative and thoughtful approach to the look and feel of the 21st century library. More and more, librarians and designers consider the emotions they hope to evoke, the ways in which different spaces will be used, and the ultimate purpose of the library within the community when conceptualizing the layout. Today’s libraries typically offer a light, fun and aesthetically pleasing environment, while incorporating modern technologies that recent generations have become accustomed to. From ergonomic furnishings, to collaborative workspaces, to even the signage in the parking lots, hardly any design element goes unconsidered. 

We’ve all come to know the familiar stereotype of the uptight librarian whose finger rests permanently perpendicular to constantly shushing lips. But today, that trope has all but disappeared. Libraries are no longer just quiet spaces for intense individual research and study. Rather, many libraries now host workshops, meet and greets and even courses that help bolster a sentiment of community gathering. The Jefferson City Public Library serves as a perfect example, providing the community with access to educational, cultural and recreational materials through books, computers and community outreach programs.

In 2020, given the huge impact of COVID-19, communities worldwide are experiencing the effects of library closures more than ever. For many communities, libraries provided a warm space for those experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Additionally, libraries often offer free internet, social services and general supply loaning — amenities that can have a distressing impact when unavailable to low income families.

Yet, the past few months have proven, once again, to be a demonstration of the adaptable nature of libraries and those who run them. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, some libraries have been ramping up their online resources, including e-books, online courses, digital magazines, podcasts and more. Plus, there’s been an increase in virtual events hosted by libraries, including family story times. In places like San Francisco, some library buildings even served as emergency care facilities for children of low-income families and those with parents on the frontlines of the outbreak. All of these factors point to the eternally resilient and evolving spirit of the library as a communal institution. 

Going hand in hand with community involvement, libraries have always maintained a commitment to providing information safely and professionally, which became ever more important with the advent of the internet. As Shorr described:

"There is no denying that the internet changed every business and institution on the planet, and libraries are no exception. Twenty years ago, we became the place that people came to in order to use computers and the internet, and since we are information professionals, we became the experts on how to use the internet safely and how to assess whether information found there is true and helpful."

Clearly, libraries are highly adaptable spaces. As times change, libraries change right along with them, and community members - notably millennials - have embraced this adaptability, allowing libraries to continue to flourish after hundreds of years. Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we’ll continue exploring the evolution of the library and its development in educational spaces.

Part 2: Libraries as integral components within educational institutions

Libraries are thriving in the new social order - Global Furniture Group

Image © Global Furniture Group, The York School

Libraries have always been an essential part of higher education and, despite the integration of technology into other areas of educational institutions, such as classrooms and lecture halls, libraries and analogue information remain absolutely necessary. In Part 2 of our series on the historical development and resurgence of libraries, we will take a closer look at the evolution of the library as a fundamental institution in educational spaces. Recognizing the changing needs for students, many school libraries have moved away from traditional layouts to include small study spaces and conference rooms where groups of students can work on assignments together. These rooms are often fully equipped with projectors, smart screens and other tools to make group work easier to accomplish. As Fort Worth Public Library Director Manya Shorr describes:

"It used to be that the entire library was expected to be quiet. Now, most public libraries are assuming the library will be loud and if someone needs a quiet space, they will use a study or conference room."

The core concepts of the school library have always been promoting literacy, the expansion of knowledge and the love of reading. While these concepts remain constant, there has undoubtedly been a notable evolution in the school library to reflect changing technologies and learning styles. Many school libraries have embraced a more collaborative spirit, incorporating group study rooms with furniture that can be moved or regrouped to support collaboration. The Bernards High School and The York School provide great examples of these increasingly collaborative learning environments. Maker spaces or creation stations have also been embraced by many school libraries. Inspired by the “Maker movement,” these types of engaging learning opportunities include STEM, creative and coding activities.

Of course, the inclusion and integration of technology has been a huge part of the school library’s evolution. While fixed-station computers have been a staple in libraries for some time, school libraries have grown into much more flexible environments when it comes to tech. In addition to carts of tablets and Chromebooks, many school libraries also have cutting-edge technology to inspire cutting-edge creativity. This includes features like interactive projectors, 3D printers, digital cameras and even greens screens.

The importance of comfort is another factor that does not go overlooked in modern school libraries. While new technologie have brought great educational advancements to the library, it still needs to be a welcoming place for students. Very often, libraries have comfortable lounge style seating in a cozy corner for students to dig into some Shakespeare once they’ve found their materials. Beyond the traditional armchair, some libraries offer more active types of seating, including exercise balls or wobble stools, that can help some students stay focused. Additionally, some libraries even provide work kiosks or standing desks for those students that prefer to stretch out while powering through those last-minute papers. 

In addition to the library space, librarians have also become a more collaborative and dynamic part of the modern school library experience. Librarians are often involved in team teaching, supporting learning across all subjects and grades. They may teach classes on digital citizenship, information literacy and more, covering essential topics, such as citing sources and staying safe online. Librarians may also offer training to staff, covering new resources and technologies through after-school professional development. They certainly are well-read.

With all this creating, researching and collaborating, school and public libraries are no longer the silent, hushed environments they once were. Fingers that once shushed are now busy swiping through tablets or pulling down projector screens. Today’s libraries are often buzzing with activity, creativity and excitement, having become lively community hubs for collaboration, learning and working. Libraries have learned to seamlessly adapt to changing norms and they will continue to do so for decades to come. Clearly, they’re here to stay.

As a final note, the impact of our current times certainly cannot be ignored when it comes to the evolving library. As mentioned in part 1, Covid-19 has undoubtedly had a significant impact on library operations, and this is no different in the educational sector. Many schools have installed Plexiglas in libraries and at reception areas to help shield students and staff. Libraries will also introduce redesigned study spaces for physical distancing, with more spread out and separated furniture. Some have even introduced sophisticated cleaning mechanisms, such as the Nebula Library Material Disinfecting Machine, which can sterilize 3 - 5 books per minute, so materials can re-enter circulation as quickly and as safely as possible.

The rise of Covid-19 has absolutely thrown a bit of a curve ball into the new era of the thriving, collaborative library, though it certainly doesn’t spell the end. The institution will likely rely more heavily on digitization and online resources for the time being, but as history has shown, libraries should be able to adapt and emerge from this era as strong as ever. 

Top image © Global Furniture Group, Radnor Memorial Library

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