Carnegie libraries dramatically influenced the design and culture of public libraries. Built with grants from steel titan Andrew Carnegie, the 1,689 Carnegie libraries are “dedicated to the diffusion of knowledge” and were intended as highly inclusive spaces that were free to the people [#1]. They were the first to introduce “open stacks” design, which empowered visitors through increased access and greater freedom of choice. Today, many Carnegie libraries are in need of costly repairs and upgrades, presenting some challenging questions: How can we successfully upgrade these spaces while preserving their history? And what role, if any, should architects have in ensuring continued open access to knowledge? Learn more about Carnegie libraries, and the rich history of American libraries overall, at the National Parks Service. See our take on integrating library history and contemporary information exchange in our design of the Mamaroneck Public Library.
The idea behind hyper-local library communities [#2], such as Brooklyn’s Mellow Pages, is to create a local, shared, community-based library. In the case of Mellow Pages, the library consists of independently published works, therefore supporting newer or lesser-known writers who lack the capacity to widely advertise their work. Similarly, the Little Free Library movement, which is directly inspired by the mission of the Carnegie libraries, coordinates the construction of small neighborhood book shelters. The rules for using them are simple: “take a book, return a book.” There are now more than 5,000 Little Free Libraries around the world, and several right here in New York City. Read more about local library communities in the Design Observer essay “Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins”
Libraries have long been considered high-potential tools for development [#3], particularly in regards to driving social and economic change. As the world continues to create and exchange information at at increasingly rapid pace, it is vital that developing countries are not left behind. Though many public libraries exist in developing countries, a large portion are not fulfilling their full potential as development tools. The Beyond Access initiative is one organization working to change this. In related efforts, Librarians Without Borders and Libraries Without Borders are two other organizations that are working to address the information resource inequity that exists across the developing world. To learn about some of the challenges facing library and education-based initiatives in the developing world, check in with the BBC’s Knowledge Economy series.
Anyone who has been to a library recently knows that we are in a period of changing libraries [#4], as the nature of information exchange, and information itself, continues to broaden. As a result, many have begun to examine the library through the lens of infrastructure. The Urban Omnibus piece “Precedents for Experimentation” discusses these challenges head-on, as does the Center for an Urban Future’s recent report on NYC branch libraries. In each of these explorations, there are recurring questions about situated experience of conducting research when, increasingly, information is only accessible digitally. Bohyun Kim shares an opinion on this specific topic in the article “Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment.” For additional reading, see “Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space.”