It’s Not a Library, It’s a Community Center

Just a few decades ago, the word “library” conjured up some very specific images: Shelf after shelf of books and magazines. Card catalogs and well-worn furniture. Deafening silence.

Walk through the door of a library today, though, and you’ll find something completely different. The shelves of books are still there, of course, but interspersed throughout, you might find huge conference rooms loaded with state-of-the-art technology, makerspaces with 3D printers, and dedicated children’s areas featuring brightly colored murals. Instead of silence, you’ll hear muffled conversations and the gentle clacking of keys from top-of-the-line computers. More importantly, you’ll encounter spaces that are inviting and open.

I like to say that we’re not actually creating libraries anymore. Instead, we’re designing community centers—critical pieces of social infrastructure. Today’s library is not just stacks of magazines and books, but a space for everyone in the community to come together and connect.

While the idea of “the library” at its core hasn’t changed that much—after all, it’s still a place that houses and facilitates the sharing of knowledge—the way it fulfills that purpose has been dramatically transformed as technology and community needs have evolved. Let’s look at some of the more recent trends we’re seeing in today’s libraries.

Kid-Friendly Areas

Libraries should be designed for all to enjoy, so we can’t forget about the smallest members of the community. The libraries of the past may have had a “children’s area” available for use, but they didn’t successfully appeal to or engage with their younger patrons. Today, though, more libraries are carving out spaces just for the children in the community.

SHP’s renovation of the North Dearborn Branch Library is a perfect example of this trend. Previously, North Dearborn’s “children’s area” was basically an adult area shrunk down to a child-sized scale. Realizing that this didn’t properly engage children in the community, SHP redesigned the space around the theme of “Pathway to the Future.” Now, kids enjoy a true children’s area that features age-specific murals and a rocket ship that doubles as a reading nook. There are even games and interactive stations to help make learning—and libraries—fun.

Community Spaces

Chances are that when you think of the library of the past, it’s almost tomblike—silent, still and ideal as a quiet space for focused study. Today, though, libraries are teeming with activity as they are more often being used as a central hub for community engagement, collaboration, and connection. With that in mind, more and more libraries are being renovated or rebuilt to include dedicated rooms and spaces for community meetings, seminars, trainings, town halls, book clubs, and study groups.

Take our work on the Osgood Public Library in Milan, Indiana as an example. The 5,200sf branch library is beautiful and functional, but the real star is its multi-purpose community room. An operable glass wall opens the room to the main reading area beyond but can be easily closed for presentations and meetings. And in true community-focused fashion, patrons can still access the space during evening hours when the library is otherwise closed.

Technology Hubs & Makerspaces

In lieu of poring through encyclopedias, today’s students and scholars are leaning on technology to complete their major projects, and libraries have risen to the occasion to meet their needs and encourage lifelong learning. In addition to housing traditional print publications and reference books, most libraries offer computers and tablet kiosks for community members, as well as custom lending apps, specialized software, e-books, digital courses and streaming services that make it easier than ever for patrons to get the information (or entertainment) they need.

Technology isn’t just restricted to computers and software, either: Many libraries are building dedicated spaces with 3D printers, laser cutters, high-end production studios, audio-visual equipment and other technologies that may not be easily accessible otherwise. The downtown branch of our hometown Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library, for example, has invested in a 9,000sf makerspace loaded with digital creation stations, large-format scanners, laser cutters and engravers, audio recording booths, 3D printers and a sewing station, among other amenities—and they’re all free for the community to use.

Outdoor Spaces

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “nature and books belong to the eyes that see them,” so it makes sense that more libraries are incorporating the outdoors into their design. This trend was on the rise even before the COVID-19 pandemic spurred demand for spaces where community members could gather in person while remaining socially distanced.

Now, things like outdoor reading gardens, well-furnished patios and interactive activities for young guests are becoming commonplace at community libraries across the country. Our design of the soon-to-be-completed Liberty Branch of the Delaware County District Library, for example, features a total of four unique outdoor spaces for patrons, including a central courtyard space in the heart of the building and a second-floor recessed covered porch that is perfect for outdoor reading.

The library of today certainly looks different than the ones our parents and grandparents would visit decades ago, but supporters of local libraries shouldn’t fret—their neighborhood branch still serves its core purpose of housing and spreading knowledge. More than that, it has become a space that truly belongs to the community and fosters a sense of connection and belonging among its guests.