The Library | Past to Future

Libraries, at their core, are a collection of knowledge or information. The modern term ‘library’ stems from the latin ‘liber,’ or book. In their ancient form, libraries served as the physical place that archived pieces of writing—typically folklore, religious/omen/meteorological texts, or financial/legal agreements. By the height of Rome, libraries became much more common and serving to the more general public. Most notable of these libraries in the famed Library of Alexandria, but even this had only a few collections open fully to the public. As Rome fell and Christianity took rise, the library broke down to smaller (possibly more manageable) categories (political, religious, natural, etc.).

The Enlightenment could be seen as the birth of the modern library; as science and knowledge grew, so did the buildings that housed the knowledge. Public libraries became significantly more commonplace, but still, they were not necessarily lending libraries. In the early enlightenment, books were typically chained to desks, but by the end, lending became the norm. Until this point though, libraries were still primarily used as a collection of texts. Perhaps the greatest disruptor to this was Andrew Carnegie with his public libraries in Pittsburgh. Carnegie found the importance of libraries when he was an immigrant child and relied heavily upon an informal lending library while he worked at a factory during his youth. Carnegie believed that with access to information, anyone would be able to rise to success as he did. Braddock Library was the first of his libraries in Pittsburgh and went as far as to have a tunnel connecting the library to his factory so that the workers could have easy access to the contents. Even the library itself was not typical for the time; along with a collection of rooms, it also housed areas for more technical knowledge and for leisure. The building also housed a theatre, a gymnasium, and a bowling alley. The library was not just a place for knowledge but for enjoyment after working. (This was also a time where there was an international call for social reform, if workers of the factories had a public place to go when they were not working, they may be less likely to give in to social ills.)

The Capitalist economic model had created a significant amount of free time for workers, and the middle classes were concerned that the workers’ free time was not being well-spent. This was prompted more by Victorian middle class paternalism rather than by demand from the lower social orders. (via: wiki)

As information, and how we access that information, continues to evolve, so does the question of the purpose of the library. With an increase in digital access, people are less willing to go to a physical place purely for books. There has been a significant shift in ‘branding’ of the library as a ‘third place’—a place that is neither home nor work where people congregate. The appeal of the library has been the social political nature (for lack of any better term); it is a place different than a mall or store where your right to be there is essentially paid for. A library is a public space for the individual betterment.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. … A mall—the shops—are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. (via:

Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève

So, where will libraries go? Libraries seem to always be immediately after the present, as in, the library is not a place where ideas that contribute to the global wealth of knowledge are born (typically), libraries are collections so that information/knowledge is able to spread. Historically, that information has been bound between leather covers; it is now changing and libraries are, for the most part, embracing those changes. Audio and video, computers, plotters, sewing machines, 3-D printers, etc. are adding to the information that are available at the library. All of these are the physical objects, but more importantly comes the social exchange involved with the being at the library. We have abandoned Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève with the grid of desks surrounded by books meant for individual research. The library is currently moving from an archive of information to social space for learning.

Carnegie Library East Liberty Teen Space

4 thoughts on “The Library | Past to Future”

  1. These are all amazing questions, and I will do my best to answer all in a single sweep.

    First, I think that location is irrelevant. In less than half a century, we have transitioned from it taking months to cross the Atlantic ocean to only taking 8 hours. We are constantly accelerating and I can only imagine that within another half century distance will be a minuscule term. That being said, I think that each person has the ability to allow their own architecture to determine the importance of this site. This ‘library’ (this term will be discussed later) could be the information hub for the entire world that becomes the center of all knowledge and living, or it could be a forgotten box that lays in wait for 10000 years next to a podunk ghost town. Both cases requires a different change to the program and the amount of time you anticipate people to be within the architecture or the site. If you believe that this building will have a Bilbao effect on Avella, your spaces and programs will work for a more transcient population where people come and go, check a book out, and grab a cup of coffee. On the other end of the spectrum, maybe people come to Avella for weeks at a time to go to the library and study or learn or interact with the people there. Either way, this a question for the architecture and your personal vision of the ‘library’ rather than the site.

    Second, the third space (in my opinion) is a space that allows for open and undirected communication of ideas and information. Home and work are directed spaces that have specific purpose and specific functions. a third space is open to what the users make of it. Now, this could also be misleading because the function of different ‘third spaces’ changes (the cafe is difference than the bar which is different than the library) and the reason people go to these places are different but the opportunity for engagement and social interaction [can] be consistent regardless of the function. I’ve had deep, philosophical conversations about Hannah Arendt’s views of political power and society (even though she basically rewrites Aristotle word-for-word) at the library, and I’ve had deep, philosophical conversations about Heidegger and the impossible concept of ‘being’ and ‘existing’ while at The Library (a great bar on Carson street). Each place place was built for a widely different function; I wouldn’t go to the SqHill library for a beer and I wouldn’t go to The Library (still the bar) for a book, but the interactions had in each have the potential to be similar.

    Back to our ‘library,’ as I said above, location and proximity is irrelevant. This building has the potential to act as a ‘third space’ regardless of it being located in a city or outside of Avella. What is inside the library is much more important. If the third space is about undirected (incorrect word, somewhere in-between ‘directionless’ and ‘unlimited’) exchange of ideas and information; then the spaces need to allow that. Does the Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève with its ordered grid better allow for this kind of exchange or does the East Liberty Teen Center with is amorphous shape and available tools better allow for it?

    Finally, what is the ‘library?’ In response to Niloofar, the function of the library is changing because our access to information is changing. 200 years ago, one had to go to the library in order to find information. Now, my iPhone, which is already three models behind, has access to all of the information in the world. Anything that I want to know can be found on the internet (one could argue that all information can be found there but not all ideas). I even have the library on my iPad, literally. With a library card from Schlow downtown, I have access to everything on their digital list and can instantly access it on my iPad (I’m actually listening to a book by James Gleick about the history of information now). So, without the need for a physical space to house books, do we need a library in the future? Absolutely not. Unless, we change (maybe not change, maybe just examine) what we mean by ‘library.’

    Let us ignore that libraries to this point housed pieces of writing. Instead let us derive or simply that they hold bits of information (coincidentally, those bits have just been written down). Things needed to be written in order to better ensure permanence of the information so that it could be communicated. Now that we all have instantaneous access to all information, our computers have become the books. Better yet, I think that we have become the computers. Hard information can come by so easily that it is uninteresting. A century ago it took and entire day before a news story could break out about what the presidential candidate said while campaigning in Iowa, now it takes mere minutes for everyone to know and only seconds more for 80 people to give analysis and opinion. Within a day, we care less about the hard information of what Donald Trump says and more about what people have to say about what he said. Information is instantaneous, but ideas are more sustained.

    In 10000 years, our library may have zero books in it. Books will all be digitized by Google (or Alphabet, whatever) and fed to us through Google brand brains that we wear like hats. Instead, the library will have ideas, and ideas can only be generated by people. Our goal should be to create a space that can foster ideas, have the tools to grow these ideas, and create the social interaction required to spread these ideas.

    I know that this is still fairly open and abstract, but I don’t think there is a solid answer to what the space should be (flexible, permanent, open, closed, etc.) but hopefully this can at least give some direction while designing.

  2. JJ mentioned and interesting point. How can the third space be defined in our library considering its location? And what can we do to make it function?
    Although we need to consider that in years from now there might be a densely populated city in the area or it can be completely abandoned.

    I have a question about the last paragraph. We all accept that the form of storage and spreading knowledge, has changed. It’s less faster, and requires less space. My question is that how exactly “The library is currently moving from an archive of information to social space for learning”?
    And would there be a different purpose for having a library in the future?

  3. How do you think this specifically relates to our 10,000 year library? If the library is moving forward and changing with the times as they grow, how do we need to allow for that continued change? Should our spaces be more flexible? What aspects are important to maintain specifically when thinking about what we will be housing?

    We are using the term library, and as you mention the word itself is derived from the work ‘book’, with the continued evolution of the spaces is there a better word to describe the spaces we are creating?

  4. The “Third Space” is truly an interesting topic. I was recently reading a book, Better library and learning space by title. I quote from the book:
    “The schloar, both of the arts and science, coffee-houses became one of the best significant locations for debate and the exchange of ideas, evolving into an important research tool, somewhere between a peer review system, an encyclopaedia, a research centre and a symposium.”
    Here is my question, our site is really far away from the city, a very small population. What is your opinion on the “Third space” on our specific site?

Leave a Reply