Public Libraries & Civic Engagement DRAFT

Across the United States, new libraries are being designed by the dozens as “living rooms for their communities.”

Following the tremendous technological advances of the past 20 years that brought us internet and compact personal devices, public libraries have suffered a shock to the manifestation of their missions to promote literacy, and provide means of navigating information and judging the fidelity of that information. The understanding of knowledge itself has changed as more outlets become available to create information and to work, study, and play in collaborative environments. In an ongoing nationwide rebranding and reorientation process, libraries have discussed, explored, and learned about diversification of their physical spaces (including break-out meeting rooms, exhibition halls, creation studios, maker spaces, café-supported social spaces, business incubators, and more robust teen and tween focused spaces), with flexibility enough to adapt spaces to future, unforeseen changes in community needs. As comfortable furniture becomes more durable, rules around food and beverages relax, and electricity and internet are made available any location, libraries have begun embracing being the de facto “third spaces” of their communities – places being not home nor work where one can spend as much time as they please at little or no expense, meet friends, explore ideas, encounter opportunities. As online services and e-readers have integrated themselves in society, it has become clear that people still desire a physical venue for these services.

But there are some objectives of libraries that are not so easily manifest in architectural design. The transition of libraries’ “turning outward” is fraught with challenges, including retraining of library staff, redefining the library’s capabilities in the public imagination, justifying expense of public resources, and the development of platforms to support these ambitions. Meanwhile, across the United States voter turnout remains low despite the many resources now available that grant access to information. Indeed, we are inundated with information, and require unimagined tools to assess value, provide orientation, and apply significance and impact to what we should consume. Interestingly, this is precisely the mandate of public librarians.

Currently there is no avenue for libraries to staff or commission a design project addressing such a need, which is a combination of programming, operations, communications, and spatial design, and may include a combination of physical, digital, virtual, and social components.

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