Interior detail of the new library of Birmigham. Image via

Interior plan for the new library of Birmigham (image via

OAKLAND, Calif. — Take a stroll downtown or to your nearest shopping center, and you’ll see firsthand that big bookstores are on the decline. A balanced article from last fall in the Open Education Database noted that, while there’s plenty of reason for optimism, bookstore sales are indeed going down. It certainly didn’t help that, in 2011, Borders went completely out of business, and electronic books have seen a sharp increase in popularity.

But that doesn’t mean books — and the spaces in which we consume them — have less importance. That same piece noted that there’s hope for independent booksellers, who are finding promise in niche markets. Part of their appeal is in offering classes and, presumably, local communities built around the books and educational offerings.

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And libraries are more vital than ever. A recent Hyperallergic piece looked at stats around libraries, including the fact that the majority of Americans have visited one (or book mobile) in the past year, and they’re still checking out books. The Los Angeles County Library system is the country’s largest in terms of facilities and continues to grow, hosting a wide variety of events and educational activities. Attendance at New York Public Libraries is up 12% from 2008, to 18 million. And it’s not just the big cities: a library in McAllen, TX, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, went viral last year for being a converted WalMart.

Which is all a lead-up, really, to this lovely interview I came across in Dezeen magazine with architect Francine Houben of design firm Mecanoo. In the Q&A, Houben talks about the gorgeous library of Birmingham, now Europe’s largest:

I wanted to make a people’s palace because it’s a public building and I think at this moment libraries are the most important public buildings, like cathedrals were many years ago. We wanted it to be very inviting and welcoming, not just about books. It’s not just for the rich or the intellectuals, it’s for everybody.

In other words, it’s a traditional library by any means. Houben understands the importance of integrating digital technologies (some libraries, like one in San Antonio, have gone entirely bookless), but at the same time, she sees the value in the space, in simply sitting and being. And in my opinion, she’s highlighted the continued value of libraries: as community spaces, learning spaces, and reading spaces not in conflict with but embracing new technologies. Unlike bookstores, cafes, or coworking spaces, the only cost to participation is getting there.

Take, for instance, the new West Hollywood Library, which sits across from the Pacific Design Center. It covers expansive views of the city, with both collaborative and quiet sitting areas. Patrons get free parking, which is a big deal in West Hollywood, and they can amble downstairs to the attached cafe or daydream in the park next door. Users with computers can surf the generous wifi network, and those with Kindles and other e-readers can download ebooks, music, and magazines from the library’s extensive collection. Public and private events are held on the rooftop and in special conference and lecture rooms.

As Les Watson, a Glasgow-based library consultant, noted recently in a terrific Guardian piece on the changing shape of university libraries, “Libraries were places of silence with pockets of group work and activity. In the 21st century university, they are becoming places of learning activity with pockets of silence.” Those who design libraries — whether they be architects of physical space or architects of the programmatic experience — would be wise to take note.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

2 replies on “The Ongoing Importance of Libraries”

  1. With the digital divide libraries are the only access many people have to computers and the Internet. At some Oakland library branches free computer access is the most popular service.

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