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: slate.com)
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.