Culture Shock: Shh . . . something strange is going on in the library

Futurologists predicted that libraries would have closed by now, but they have a key role to play in the knowledge economy

In 2007 the futurologist Richard Watson published a slightly tongue-in-cheek “extinction timeline”, predicting the exact dates on which familiar parts of our world would “cease to be significant”, swept aside by technological innovation, social change or climate catastrophe. Telephone directories would be gone by 2017, petrol-engined vehicles by 2035 and physical newspapers by 2049. (Even at the time that last one seemed a tad optimistic.) The year 2019, said Watson, would see the end of libraries, those fusty, dusty old repositories of something called “books” (also nearing their end of life).

The general point seemed indisputable. Google and the cloud would soon deliver us all the information we required, anytime and anywhere we wanted it, so why would anyone need physical buildings, with shelves and reading desks and librarians and all that, y'know, stuff?

Twenty-nineteen is only three years away, and the prediction doesn’t look so smart now. Far from disappearing, libraries are going through a transformation that puts them in a central role within the much-vaunted knowledge economy and moves them into areas as conceptually challenging as they are exciting.

The most prominent example of this so far in Ireland is dlr LexIcon library, which, despite its wayward approach to capitalisation and a not entirely popular architectural intervention on the Dún Laoghaire seafront, shows how a modern public library can be a place of exploration, play, performance and creativity, as well as of contemplation, reading and research. As Carr Cotter & Naessens Architects’ splendid building shows, how you fit all those things together requires imaginative approaches to acoustics, light and spatial relationships.

But this isn’t just a question of building new sorts of libraries or retrofitting older ones. Unlike telephone directories, printed newspapers or petrol-engined cars, libraries have been with us for millenniums. They have ranged from the gargantuan (New York Public Library, where the towering shelves hold up the whole building) to the small personal collections that people build up over their lives. The idea of a physical space where knowledge can be acquired, enjoyed, shared and used has endured through many eras of human history for good reason. It would be very strange if it were to disappear during the so-called information age.

A recent symposium at Trinity College Dublin brought together some of the world's biggest thinkers and doers in the world of libraries. Mike Keller, the innovative university librarian at Stanford, in the US, talked about managing, preserving and indexing the firehouse of digital content published every day on the web, and about how Stanford is collaborating with its Silicon Valley neighbours to devise approaches to semantic search that overcome the limitations of Google-style page rankings.

Richard Ovenden, who as Bodley's librarian heads the main research library at Oxford University, one of the oldest libraries in Europe, talked about the Bodleian's revamped New Library, a reimagined 1930s slab that has been opened up physically and metaphorically to the public through a refurbishment that allows more space and light for visitors and for exhibitions of the library's treasures.

Jeffrey Schnapp, whose work at Harvard spans media, design, digital arts and humanities, talked about the potential for creating wifi cold spots. Libraries once sought a new role as places where you could connect to the online world. Now, with nearly everyone connected everywhere, Schnapp argued, they could lead the way in modelling a new culture of voluntary disconnection at certain times and in certain places.

Helen Shenton, Trinity's librarian and archivist, who organised the event, says that these new ideas "blur the boundaries between a 24-hour bookstore and coffee shop, a pop-up learning commons, a data visualisation lab, a social collaboratory and a collection repository and offer exciting potential for what the library can become".

Some may fear that what’s going on is simply a desperate lunge for relevance. Where will all the books go, they might ask. But that misses the point. Collections and preservation will remain important, but improved off-site storage and retrieval free up library space for a range of other uses.

Whether they’re attached to schools or universities, are national institutions or are services provided by local authorities, libraries offer the possibility of a communal space devoted to ideas and creativity – crucially, one not controlled by private sectoral interests or driven by a purely commercial imperative. And civic libraries are places where anyone can come to read or think or just sit.

“What will a library be tomorrow?” Schnapp asked before answering his own question: “A hybrid, multimedia space for knowledge access and activation – as has been the case for much of its history.”

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