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Librii: Five Points Toward an Evolving Library

Image courtesy of Gensler

One billion people live in Africa, but less than three percent of the population has access to broadband Internet. This barrier to the wealth of information stored online inhibits social mobility, economic growth, and well-being. Finding ways to increase access to affordable high-speed Internet represents a significant opportunity to achieve social impact throughout the continent.

Enter Librii, a library designed to meet the information and other needs of communities, not just provide them with reading material.

Librii is a digitally enhanced, community-based, revenue-generating library network devised to thrive in the developing world. Designed to deploy initially along an expanding fiber optic infrastructure in Ghana, Librii will bring broadband connectivity to previously secluded communities.

Using seed funding from the World Bank, I started this project in 2010 as the culmination of graduate research conducted at the Rice University School of Architecture. Since then, I’ve worked with a team of academics and designers to refine the idea. I and my colleagues at Gensler are now partnering with a number of organizations, including Architecture for Humanity and Librarians Without Borders, to implement it. Construction for the first Librii prototype is slated to begin in early summer, and the library could be operational in Accra, Ghana, by the end of 2013. Librii has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the construction of the pilot library.

At Gensler, we see the project as part of an ongoing commitment by the firm to use design innovation to enhance and improve people’s lives. What’s so innovative about Librii? Here are five ways this project stirs the pot of institutional orthodoxy.

1. Flip the business model

We designed Librii to run on a revenue-generating business model. This was not done so the investors will get rich; it prevents the library from having to rely on funding from governments or philanthropic organizations beyond startup capital. When you take a step back and think about the ways a library could be monetized, you realize there’s a wide range of potential revenue streams. The trick is to activate the fewest streams so that the most people can have access to the highest number of resources at the lowest cost. For example, if you charge a premium for people who want to browse at peak traffic times and integrate modest advertising into the library environment, you can provide subsidized browsing off-hours and build a physical collection of books.

Financial sustainability is critical to Librii’s mission — and its success. Librii is designed to operate on a minimal budget. Revenues generated from basic services will fund overhead costs. This creates a sustainable operation so the libraries won't have to rely on continued outside support. Any profits generated by a Librii outpost will be used to sponsor community education programs.

Image courtesy of Gensler

2. Shift from consumption to production

Talk to librarians and they’ll tell you libraries are no longer places where people come to absorb information in a contemplative environment. They are places where people go to interact with each other as well as with the wealth of information now available online. To that end, libraries have to shift from being homogeneous, quiet environments to variable collections of zones that allow for collaboration, presentation, performance, making, doing, observing, testing, and — yes — isolated concentration. Librii will provide that space, plus the hardware and software resources, as well as guidance to support whatever users are inspired to do and create.

3. Broaden the collection

Libraries are one of our greatest repositories of culture. To that end, a library’s collection should mirror the desires of the community that surrounds it. The Librii model is built on the idea that instead of predetermining what a particular library will hold, the building opens with empty shelves and prints books on demand, as they are requested. The technology for this already exists (e.g., Xerox can supply machines for this type of work; Google and others have the content), but the publishing industry has, up until now, bristled at adopting it. Nevertheless, one only has to look as Cisco’s stats on the projected volume of the Internet by 2020 to realize the direction data is heading. A handful of publishers will not be able to stand against the tide.

Image courtesy of Gensler

4. Rethink the network

A century ago, Andrew Carnegie built 2,500 libraries around the globe (including about 1,700 in the U.S. alone). He made every effort to cut ties between his corporation and each individual library, frequently requiring local governments to tax themselves 10 percent of the buildings’ construction cost to underwrite the operations. These days, the concept of a network means something totally different. The potential — in terms of knowledge, personnel, and resource sharing — of 1,000 libraries operating under the umbrella of a single company could be significantly more efficient than a thousand libraries run by a thousand difference local governments. Think of this as the McDonald’s of libraries.

5. Go boldly where no one has gone before

Librii is created to thrive in the developing world. The impulse to work in this market was motivated by idea that design can improve the infrastructure in countries where easy access to information is a scarcity. But we have not approached this project as charity. Librii is a service offered to a population that needs it. Librii communities can support the project financially, think creatively about project delivery, and are willing to absorb the risk.

What we quickly realized when the project began was that operating in markets without robust library infrastructures allows us to rethink the library typology altogether. It has been an extremely liberating process, and while we admit that our current iteration can benefit from improvement, we feel that when the Librii pilot is open by the end of 2013, it will be among the most innovative libraries in the world today.

Image courtesy of Gensler

If you want to help Librii come to life, please visit our Kickstarter page and make a pledge. DON’T DELAY — the campaign closes on April 4.

David Dewane is an architect obsessed with anticipating change in a changing world. His mission is to help Gensler become a truly global firm by finding a way to extend its design excellence to communities at every socioeconomic level. He earned his sustainability stripes under the notorious Pliny Fisk III at the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas and has the SCARS TO PROVE IT. Contact him at david_dewane@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

This is all mighty nice of you capitalists. Google can supply the content but what do they get in return? Oh yea, they can use their clever algorithms to shower Africans with inconspicuous advertisements and product placement. People in Africa have enough problems, they don't need silly schemes to make American companies rich.
Take a lesson from Andrew Carnegie! Learn to give and not treat education as a commodity.
04.4.2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy McLoure

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