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Designing Libraries in a Digital World

Among myriad programming assignments that clients assign to their architects, perhaps no other building type is more challenging to plan than the contemporary library.

The evolution of libraries—specifically academic libraries—has been underway for years. There are a few well-documented reasons for this evolution: the explosive growth of the information age, fundamental changes in pedagogy and research strategies, and a shift from individual study toward more collaborative learning environments.

But it’s also the tenuous future of the book that throws planning off-kilter. I have blogged about this topic in the past but believe it merits revisiting.

Many institutions no longer plan new library facilities based on the size of their existing collections. In one extreme example, the University of Denver announced a controversial plan to accommodate only twenty percent of its physical collection within the footprint of its new library, a move that has polarized its students and faculty.

So how do we decide how much real estate to give the book?

On the one hand, it’s difficult to over-emphasize the influence of the Internet on academic collections. Hence the growing trend toward digitization (Northwestern) and off-site storage (Harvard) that begins to de-emphasize the book as a physical entity that resides within the envelope of the library. Space is always at a premium on college campuses, and it’s difficult to justify the cost of housing rarely accessed resources that, in most cases, can easily be found online or retrieved from cold storage.

On the other hand, it’s sophomoric to suggest that physical books—and the associated rows of book stacks—are going away entirely. Any academic will tell you about serendipity, the act of stumbling upon a useful volume when searching a particular section of the stacks. They’ll tell you that digitization is a long and imperfect process fraught with challenges associated with copyright and access. And they’ll tell you there will always be some physical books in the library because, yes, many people still like to be able to touch an actual book rather than navigate through text and images on a computer screen.

Not all major research-based academic libraries are trending toward a book-free future. I recently took a tour of the new Mansueto library addition at the University of Chicago, Helmut Jahn’s glass bubble nestled next to the university’s legacy Regenstein library. The new addition sits atop a five-story automated book retrieval system, essentially a gigantic book bunker. The net result: the university is brining 3.5 million volumes of its collection back on campus.

But the Mansueto library is a notable exception, and most colleges don’t have the resources or desire to grow their on-campus collections ad infinitum. As the library continues to evolve at an alarmingly rapid pace, institutions—and their architects—must take their best shot at a moving target.

Michael Hanley is a designer in the education practice at Gensler’s Chicago office and has a background in journalism. He’s interested in the unique design opportunities presented by urban college campuses such as Columbia College Chicago, and finding innovative ways to connect higher learning institutions with speculative development enterprises. Contact him at michael_hanley@gensler.com

Reader Comments (2)

I do understand the cost issues associated with downsizing or elminating libraries....would be really interested to understand more about how learning happens with traditional hard copy reading vs. digital...issues like retention, processing meaning, etc. It seems that there could be a hybrid model that nets the best benefits of both. Do you have any insight or research into this?

And from a mental focus standpoint, I know that I used to find the eerily quiet stacks at my university a much better studying location than the newer, highly social and more digitally-inclined facility!
06.7.2011 | Unregistered CommenterKEK
Great post on what I agree is a typology undoubtedly in flux.

Many of the observations in the piece focus on the role of the physical volumes in the library. Perhaps more fundamental than the number of role of the book is the role of the library itself.

Librarians today will tell you that people today no longer come to absorb information in a contemplative environment – instead they come to radically reconstitute the sea of data they are immersed in. This happens both individually and in groups and the data they source is from a variety of media. For library planning, it would seem recognizing this shift in use as the starting point and that whatever resources you provide onsite are balanced to facilitate and stimulate this activity.

Another aspect of the physical book that is quite exciting is its ability to be produced on demand. Machines that are combination printer/binders are capable of downloading a book from the web, printing it, binding it, and dropping it out in a matter of minutes. This is existing technology backed by Xerox and Goolge. To take it a step further, if you switched from printing books on cellulose based paper to a rapidly recyclable film (similar to what Cradle to Cradle is printed on) is not unreasonable to imagine that you may soon be able to go into a library for a book, which is printed for you on the spot, and when it is returned it is added to the permanent collection or simply recycled. Every library with such a machine could instantly become a library of millions of volumes.

It is also important to note that many of the libraries mentioned are academic libraries, which are on the high end of the spectrum of sophistication. Many of the smaller and mid-sized community libraries will not be likely to liquidate their collections or stop investing in physical volumes any time soon. If you look beyond America and Europe into the developing world you see about only about 30% of the world has access to the internet and one quarter lack access to electricity. From that perspective, it would seem reasonable that the book-based library will still have a major presence during our lifetime.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the digital now penetrates almost every aspect of information delivery and it will fascinating continue tracking the developments of this typology.
06.8.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid dewane

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