When Samuel Tilden died in 1886, the former New York Governor left $2.4 million (the equivalent of about $60 million today) to establish and maintain a free library for the City of New York. The Tilden trust was later pooled with two other struggling, independent institutions: the Astor Library, founded by John Jacob Astor, who left $400,000 in his will for a non-circulating reference library; and the Lenox Library, which grew from the rare book collection of James Lenox. The most generous contribution in the library system’s history, a $5.2 million gift from Andrew Carnegie in 1919, established the modern network of local branches, which now includes 87 lending libraries in three city boroughs (the Brooklyn and Queens libraries are part of a related but separate system).
The modern public library, often viewed as quaint and anachronistic, seem an unlikely vehicle for technological or social innovation. But a radical upgrade would make them exactly that. In the last decade, library branches across Europe and the United States have assumed new roles that expand their original mandate through novel types of educational programming (citizenship and language curricula, creative writing workshops, cooking classes, etc.) and, specifically, by emphasizing digital essentials, like navigating the web and operating desktop computers. Behind this push lies a recognition that the ability to access information, and thereby participate in the global economy, increasingly requires some basic technological literacy.
Education, like other resources, is distributed unevenly across geographic regions (at the city, region and international scales) and social strata. Not surprisingly, employers complain of a resulting, persistent “skills gap,” in entry-level job applicants. In the U.S., the next generation of middle class— the so-called “new collar” workers— will be solar panel technicians, machine operators, and computer programmers, as well as local electricians, plumbers and HVAC technicians trained in the increasingly complex technologies of their respective trades. Yet many countries, including the U.S., lack a robust apprenticeship system, strong vocational schools, and adequate on-the-job training to compensate for public schools of dramatically uneven quality. For-profit continuing education programs cater to a narrow demographic group— young, digitally literate workers with disposable income—while Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are often free but require hardware, persistence and basic technical know-how, all of which dramatically limits their potential audience.
In its current form, the public library’s mission might be understood as a tepid response to the same demand. That this revamped vision targets exactly the wrong audience—retirees and recreational computer users, rather than tech-savvy teenagers, and professionals striving for digital fluency in in-demand hardware and software—speaks primarily to a failure of imagination, not opportunity.
Rethinking the public library system will first need to acknowledge the overwhelming potential of the institution as social and educational catalyst, and then inventory the significant assets that libraries already possess.
In fact, rethinking the public library system will first need to acknowledge the overwhelming potential of the institution as social and educational catalyst, and then inventory the significant assets that libraries already possess. The greatest of these may be land (air rights, too, in very dense urban areas). In cities around the world, libraries still operate primarily as brick-and-mortar facilities, which is significant as a first quality for community place-making, but also because new iterations will require physical space to house equipment. The number and distribution of individual branches is important, too. New York hosts America’s largest urban network, but the Chicago library system includes 80 local branches, and Los Angeles 72. The nonprofit Public Library 2020 counts 4,089 public libraries in the United Kingdom, 8,094 in Poland, 9,117 in Germany, and 16,100 in France. By one count, more than 2,300 public libraries operate in China, but this relatively low number does not include tens of thousands of cultural centers that include reading rooms. It is not by accident that Medellin’s celebrated urban renaissance, founded on a growing economy and increased security, also coincided with a highly publicized program of striking new libraries; that they are rare neutral spaces—apolitical, egalitarian, diverse—make libraries a ideal vehicles for community development.
An expanded and upgraded public library system does not so much require a radical evolution of the status quo, as a series of well-considered tweaks. Land use regulations will have to permit higher density development on public land and then embrace new multi-use spaces to include disparate activities living within the same building. To attract a range of new users without abandoning its core audience, libraries will need to offer workshops in 3D printing, digital fabrication and coding, without sacrificing childhood learning programs, book clubs and movie nights.
A design philosophy that privileges holistic architecture and engineering will be required to guide this shift. Buildings will also have to upgrade to reflect their new purpose, compartmentalizing spaces to accommodate the range of adjacent, and sometimes conflicting, programs. In fact, the greater the ambition of these expanded uses—which might include everything from fabrication labs and makerspaces to day care facilities—the greater the need for integrated design approaches that team architects, political leadership and community stakeholders. The range and number of potential activities are limited essentially by the capacity for making attractive, functional and insulated spaces.
To fund these programs, the new library system can look to an old model: public money that leverages private donations from a mix of philanthropic foundations and corporations. Such partnerships will range from the ordinary—a neighborhood coffee shop operating for a concession fee—to the innovative: companies might tailor educational programs to teach the skills they’ll need from local workforces, or claim first-mover rights on exceptionally bright students trained in their sponsored workshop programs.
This model would seem overly optimistic, except that a version of the idea is already employed by companies like Microsoft, which bypass spotty public education by supporting nonprofit, skills-based training programs teaching in-demand information technology skills to entry level job applicants. Educational software developers like Google (whose various products are now used by almost half of all primary and secondary age students in the US) may offer subsidized equipment to test new products with targeted demographic groups. As local library branches continue to be nodes of community life, they will incorporate daycare facilities, fitness centers, grocery stores, and other appropriate privately run businesses within their buildings. Success attracts private enterprises, which then helps subsidize free public programming.
The latent potential of library systems has, in fact, already been proven in places like New York, where the modern library system is well-funded and well-used, serving close to 20 million patrons each year. As cities worldwide grapple with common themes, including growing segregation along racial and economic lines, and increases in the urban opportunities gap, neutral urban spaces have become increasingly rare, and all the more important as a result. What’s missing from today’s urban libraries are not the basic infrastructure—the brand, land, building or audience—but the political will and technical expertise to help realize an ambitious upgrade and expansion. This vision represents an iteration of an old system, using the tools and technologies available today.
Featured image, a branch library in Atlanta, via Wikipedia Commons.