A Library Renaissance

Despite higher demand and less money, libraries are stepping up

| July-August 2010

The recession reminded a lot of us that we don’t have to pay for books, movies, or Internet access—that most libraries have all those things for free. Consequently, library usage is up more than 20 percent from 2006, according to the American Library Association’s 2010 State of American Libraries report.

Unfortunately, the same economic factors that are sending people into the library are also conspiring to keep them out: Over the past year, nearly 15 percent of U.S. libraries (and 25 percent of those in urban settings) had to cut their hours. It is, the report suggests, a “perfect storm of growing community demand for library services and shrinking resources to meet that demand.”

The way we seek knowledge has changed; the Internet permits more paths to discovery than any one collection of books can. So while the library is still in the business of housing and preserving information, it is increasingly embracing its role as a space for community and discussion—no shushing allowed.

“The Internet has done a lot in the way of isolating people,” Sandy Horrocks, an administrator at the Free Library of Philadelphia, tells Miller-McCune (March-April 2010). “We find when we have programs, the attendance is extraordinary. . . . People want to come together and have dialogues and conversations, and libraries are providing that place.”

At the extreme end of this spectrum is an ambitious new library in the works in Aarhus, Denmark. This high-tech “urban mediaspace” is being designed to function as a city center: It will have books, but it will also house government-services offices, artist studios, start-up businesses, space for performances, a café, a tram station, and other 21st-century amenities. Aarhus’ multifaceted structure symbol­izes the library of the future, Miller-McCune reports, “a mixed-use, multimedia complex that is meant to foster social interaction and creative ferment as much as reading and research.”

On a smaller scale, more and more institutions are using space creatively to attract broader swaths of their communities. Salt Lake City’s seven-year-old library shares a building with the local public radio affiliate, which has a glass-walled studio so that gawkers can watch live radio on their way to check out books. It’s the second-most-visited building downtown, after the Mormon temple. The proposal for a new 500,000-square-foot San Diego central library includes two stories dedicated to a charter high school.

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