Libraries of the future

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Bradd Brown, guest columnist

This month seven libraries will be recognized for their excellence in design with the AIA/ALA Library Building Award at the American Library Association convention in Orlando. Each library exemplifies the transformative power a library can have on its community. While some may question the relevancy of libraries in today’s digital age, in designing more than 40 public libraries over the past 20 years, OPN Architects has seen first hand that the role of these most public of all institutions is just as critical to a community’s well-being as it was 100 years ago.

It was at the turn of the 20th century that philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, recognizing how access to information could impact a person’s life potential, made free public libraries one of his greatest endeavors. His legacy includes 2,509 libraries in towns, cities, and college campuses across the country, including 101 in Iowa. The libraries Carnegie envisioned celebrated knowledge through both collection and congregation. Collections were concentrated in defined areas, while equal, if not more space, was dedicated to ornate reading rooms where the community could gather to share ideas.

Somewhere in the 100 years between Carnegie’s era and now, though, libraries started to define their worth by their collections, not their community. Today, we have come full circle. Libraries are re-embracing their role as community connectors intent on content creation, openly designed to bring in natural light and allow for a user-friendly environment. Communities across Iowa, with the help of architects, have brought libraries back to life by embracing their communal spaces to create, make, examine, imagine, compose, and propose new ideas.

A library is no longer defined only by the tangible materials it possesses. A book has the capacity for creating memories, but libraries also offer infinite potential for dreaming, growing, planning, discovering, and investigating. A library is a fixed built environment, yet every visit, every interaction offers a distinctive experience. When a library melds the legacy of its past with the possibilities of the future, it is both familiar and comfortable, yet novel and inspiring. Whether a visit is to grab a cup of coffee, a crime thriller, or conversation with a friend, a library is incomparable in its potential to offer assorted solutions to an equally varied group of people. It’s a space that inspires joyful giggles and enthusiastic epiphanies. Yet, it is also unrivaled in its capacity to embrace everyone, regardless of circumstance, even if all they need is a shelter from life’s storm. Today’s libraries are truly community catalysts; they are designed to bring people together and as a result are transforming neighborhoods.

We call this new approach the Library of the Future. In fact, though, the library of the future is not only a return to the tradition of the past. It is also already the library of today. Take, for example, the Cedar Rapids Public Library, which was honored in 2015 with an AIA/ALA Library Building Award. The new library replaced the previous facility damaged by the floods of 2008. The library did not grow appreciably in size, nor was it located in a dramatically different part of the city. Yet, the impact of the community is undeniable.

One would expect an increase in visitors initially, explained easily by the novelty of a new space. Since opening in 2013, though, the library has increased circulation, visitors, use of computers and meeting rooms, and participation in events in some cases by the hundreds of thousands over the pre-flood facility. Visits increased by more than 200,000, program participants nearly tripled, and meeting room usage went from below 15,000 to well over 130,000. Circulation increased as well by 200,000, making the Cedar Rapids Public Library the highest circulating library in the state.

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that there have been dozens of weddings, concerts, church services, and celebrations. As architects that design library’s, we are humbled that our lifework is dedicated to creating spaces that will be embraced by communities in ways yet to be imagined. The library of the future is indeed now.

• Bradd Brown is an ALA/AIA Library Building Design Award juror and principal at OPN Architects in Cedar Rapids. Comments:

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