The Library of the Future

This just came my way from my colleague Laura Isenstein this morning and I thought it would be of interest to all of you…

These are the words of William Robinson, an architect with Engberg Anderson Design Partners from Milwaukee (WI). Enberg Anderson has years of experience in designing public libraries. He was asked this question on LinkedIn.

This is what the vision for the 21st Century Library is all about and what public library service of today and tomorrow is and will be about.

The Question: How do you imagine the library of the future?

William’s answer:

"The role of the library, particularly the Public Library (which is what I believe you are asking about) has changed incrementally over the past 20 years or so. While still the repository of literature and often special collections (local history, maritime, archival), the social aspects of the library are what set it apart from the research you can do at home via the internet, and the visit to the local bookstore (still important... keep them open). Most libraries are now recognizing the need to offer interactive learning space - shared computers for kids, vs. individual desktops; study rooms for small groups to work collaboratively or for local business startups to use for meetings; larger public meeting facilities with available technology not found at the local hotel meeting room; etc.

In addition, the library has become an increasingly social environment. A place that people meet and keep in touch with each other, especially among young people and families. In fact in many recent libraries we have designed, the spaces are now assumed to be active and "buzzing" and we are finding ourselves designing the quiet room where those who are seeking a quiet read can go - often near a fireplace and with a cup of coffee nearby.

In addition, with the abundance of internet data out there, and students increasingly seeing Google as the source of all wisdom and knowledge, experienced library staff are an invaluable resource for helping teach "how to research" as opposed to just "where", by helping students discern credible information and how to cross reference sources of information.

Third, the library is the last great social equalizer in most communities. It is the one place that is owned by all the people, and truly accessible to all. Libraries may become the last bastion of truly neutral discourse as the media increasingly delivers information mixed with opinion and bias. And libraries will continue to bring people together, through programming for all ages, and through access to shared resources, in a way that no other private facility can do. They will remain the center of a community. So the shelves of books may decrease, and many may be replaced by shared electronic resources, but the need for space where a community can gather, interact, communicate and learn together will continue to grow.

The role of the librarian will continue to evolve, but remain as vital as ever, and the facilities themselves will change from the shelving-filled warehouses for information that many once were, to the truly active and alive center of the community.


  1. Kim,

    How does this connect with the results of the Seattle PL user survey just reported on in Hotline that showed 94% of all respondents said that one of the two most important library servcies is providing materials, while providing access to technology services came in at 48%?

    Fewer than 10% cited SPL's role of hosting events & programs and offering a community gathering space as priorities.

    This begs a question I've been pondering for awhile...how much of what we choose as direction for our libraries comes from our *users* and how much comes from consultants and advisors? You recommend in your workshops talking to our users, but what happens when the users tell us something that doesn't fit with the current trend in library planning?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Patty. I saw the Hotline article and also have a copy of the survey results. Here are some thoughts:

    •The questions in the Seattle survey limited the responses to choosing the “two most” important items. In this situation, people are always going to pick collection because it’s “what they know.” When you get to awareness of library services it is clear that, as we always find out, people are not aware of what the library has to offer. If you look at the detail behind the responses - use of technology and electronic resources - the picture is different. This is true of the programming responses too.

    •Overall, a survey’s structure / format can easily skew results and become more a measure of perceptions than real needs. This is why multiple information gathering tools should be heavily used when trying to understand and appropriately provide service to one’s community as well as educate the community about the future of library services.

    •What is reported in the press does not tell the whole story. The real information that Seattle needs to delve into is in the details and charting of the responses and meaning as assessed by the survey experts.

    •Yes, I am a huge believer in public input. Library’s need to listen to their communities (not accept something because it works or doesn’t work in another community). Most importantly, libraries need to be proactive and educate their communities about the future of public library service. Any good consultant would advise their client to invest in multiple information gathering tools, including well constructed surveys (having a true public opinion research firm conduct a survey), focus groups, stakeholder meetings, community meetings, etc. A single measuring tool is not enough to know the real truth of anything related to needs and perceptions when talking about large groups and communities.

    •In regard to services, here’s an analogy for you. Should Baskin Robbins only sell Vanilla ice cream because 95% of people say they like Vanilla? Should they discontinue Mint Chocolate Chip because only 10% of people listed it as one of their two favorites? Did they even know about the other flavors? Have they tried them?

    •So, that bring me to your final question…what if a library does everything I suggest about gathering public input the “right” way and your community still says we want nothing but collections and technology access. Then you should focus on those aspects. Allocate resources appropriately, but don’t give up on educating the public to what a library could be as even the public’s needs and perceptions can change over time. Stay in tune with how things could evolve and be ready to adapt.


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