The word "library" used to conjure an image of a big brick building full of books where you had to be quiet all the time, but thanks to the internet, it's now a whole lot less specific. Take, for example, the Little Free Libraries that are springing up in neighborhoods all over the world. Anyone can download plans for a Little Free Library, build it, and fill it with books they want to share with their community. We've collected a few such projects on this map.
Resources distributed by a library now extend far beyond books too. Seed libraries store, catalogue, and share seeds, while tool libraries lend tools and other equipment out to members of the community. And some libraries have no physical presence whatsoever, such as sound libraries, which compile and share digital archives. Tons more examples of outstanding libraries are viewable using our Library tag.
We wanted an update on the state of libraries, so we spoke to a few creators who have firsthand experience creating or managing them.
Kauser Razvi looked at the vacant lots in Cleveland, where she resides with her family, and saw an opportunity. She started a program called Literary Lots, which transforms those lots into interactive educational spaces for children, in an effort to bring books off the page.
At his first architecture job after finishing school, Edward Boatman had trouble locating visual communication assets for his projects. That inspired him to co-found The Noun Project, a crowdsourced visual dictionary of over 100,000 symbols and icons.
Leslie Davol co-founded and runs a nonprofit called The Uni Project with her husband, Sam. The Uni is a portable reading room, intended to instantaneously transform nearly any public space into a library.
The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California, was founded in 1981, and Assistant Director Mike Scutari has worked there for the past five years. The Library is a nonprofit arts center and book store, and hosts all manner of community-centric events in their outdoor amphitheater.
What is a library? How would you define it?
Mike: We'd consider a library a collection of books — that's the baseline. But a library can also reflect the spirit of the community it serves or exude a particular sense of experience, depending on how it's curated.
Edward: A library is a resource to help humans find, locate, and ultimately use different types of media.
Kauser: A library is a place for communities to gather, where you can learn, seek information, gain knowledge, and seek access to things there aren’t available from another source.
Leslie: Public libraries do so many things these days: cultural programming, social services, maker spaces, tool shares, cafes. And, of course, Internet access. Sometimes they still have books too.
What's so important about libraries?
Leslie: Libraries embed some of our most cherished values in an actual place—a place that you can enter without having to pay, alongside people from all walks of life, where you can learn something and improve yourself. Try this: imagine deleting all libraries from the city. What remaining places would offer this combination of real services and symbolic importance? Without libraries, our society feels dramatically diminished.
Mike: They provide a sense of stillness and reflection in an ever-busy world. They provide a unique aesthetic experience where it's cool to simply sit down, read a book, and hang out for hours on end. There are no expectations or commercial demands beyond simply utilizing the space, and that's a rare thing. Lastly, public libraries provide excellent programming that supplements in-school learning and give kids a place to go after school.
What do all good libraries have in common?
Kauser: Great librarians. Great librarians can open your eyes to new books and ideas, and help lead you to things you might not have otherwise be able to find.
Leslie: Libraries are nothing special, I think, without people behind them—not just to answer your reference questions but to act as hosts of these important spaces.
Mike: In an age of automated customer service and unsolicited "cold texts," it's difficult to find places where you can talk to a real-live human, face to face, without a paralyzing sense of urgency. It's refreshing.
The year is 2050. What are libraries like in the future?
Edward: I recently tried the Oculus virtual reality headset, it was hands down the most powerful technological experience I’ve ever had, and I can’t imagine that libraries won’t use this technology in the future. Imagine browsing through the Library of Congress in your living room.
Kauser: I think in 2050, when I’m really old lady, people will feel the need to get out of their digital world/pods and the library can be a place where so many ideas and mediums mix.
Mike: Libraries will fully embrace their role as a community gathering space.
Leslie: I have no idea! Ours will still have real books with pages you can turn, I can promise you that. Our little institution lives or dies by our ability to attract people’s attention, engage them, and delight them in a world that is saturated with screens. We have great pop-up books.
What advice do you have for people that want to create a library of their own?
Kauser: It’s the ideas of collection and bringing together that are so important for a library.
Leslie: Build a collection of great books. Share.
Mike: Don't be intimidated by new technology trends or keeping up with the Joneses. Rather, embrace your strengths — things like your connections to community organizations, individuals, and your area's history.
Edward: Build around you a community of like-minded passionate people that share your vision. Then empower this community to help collect, curate, and share the content within your library. You’ll find as this community grows, so will your library.