Designing Libraries in a Digital World
Michael Hanley in Education Design, Education Research, Education and Culture

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
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