A repository of knowledge, a labyrinth, a sanctum and a place for the pursuit of truth, is probably how an idealist would describe a library. But for a person in quest of knowledge, a public library has always been a free, open and democratic institution catering to the needs of everyone. And perhaps that is the reason why we continue doggedly to go to the library.

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An illustration “Books vs e-readers” by Christoph Niemann, an illustrator and graphic designer ©Christoph Niemann

The library as a public institution has a history spanning millennia in time. It has evolved dramatically over the years from sharing and lending books to private libraries gradually becoming public libraries to the 21st-century version which is more like a community center. The traditional model of the public library more or less talked about a grand reading room as a column-free space, flanked with rows of tables and chairs with a perimeter lined with bookcases and galleries. They were chiefly circular or rectangular in plan with a monumental style, imposing façade, ornamented interior and a ceremonial flight of steps leading to the entrance. But with the advent of digital technologies, the world’s knowledge no longer fits neatly on the library shelves. In today’s digital age our idea of learning, sharing and gaining knowledge is changing and hence the role and function of the library. Therefore it is important to redefine and reimagine the public library both architecturally and symbolically for it to be relevant in society.

Library proposals by OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture by Rem Koolhaas)

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Seattle Central Library by OMA and LMN ©OMA and LMN

There already has been a lot of research, debates and discussions oriented towards creating the right model for the future public library of the digital – age. The design of the Seattle Central Library by OMA and LMN in 2004 was arguably the first one to radically redefine the library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the books but a place where all forms of media are presented equally and comprehensively. Its unconventional approach to the form and program of the library reimagines what the 21st-century public library should look like.

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Très Grande Bibliothèque (Left) & Bibliothèques Jussieu (Right) ©OMA

The former library proposals by OMA have been extremely instrumental in the conception of the Seattle Central Library. Très Grande Bibliothèque in 1989 for National Library in France and Bibliotheques Jussieu in 1993 for Jussieu Campus at Sorbonne University in Paris are both parts of a competition proposal. Because it was the time when alterations in technology could have affected the library as a physical space, OMA argued that it would be “absurd to imagine the ultimate library” and “almost impossible to reach absolute architecture”. While these proposals cater to these specific libraries, they are universal and prototypical in nature addressing the similar and crucial issues of program, public space, circulation, movement and organization. Très Grande Bibliothèque is interpreted as a solid block of information with voids as public spaces connected by a grid of nine elevators whereas Bibliotheques Jussieu talks about creating an urban experience within the building and how a visitor wanders around in search of a book in order to enable new relations, social interactions and varied experiences.

How then will a modern public library look like? What kind of spaces and services will it provide? 

What if the library of the digital – age captured the spirit of a coffee shop, the grand spaces of a public plaza, the tech-savviness of a high–tech store and the green sprawl of an urban park?

It most certainly can. Numerous attempts have been made by architects to reconfigure and reimagine the public library of today and have realized that they are as much about creating places where people meet, discuss ideas, eat, explore, as it is about the collection and administration of books. In today’s digital landscape, the public library will have to adopt a hybrid approach, integrating both types of media for it to serve everyone. Along with breaking free from its once – rigid definition, it will have to be more open, dynamic and inviting for its users. One that looks outwards to the world metaphorically and literally compared to the earlier model and in the process it might not even look like a library. Many will have to demonstrate the ability to understand the needs of their communities and make themselves part of the solution to their problems. They will have to provide a much richer range of public spaces and services: from retail to entertainment, art, education, healthcare to varied new programs. Along with the diverse services, it will have to be iconic and unconventional to attract a new and diverse group of users. Contrary to the hybrid approach, one might also propose the idea of a futuristic digital library completely devoid of books and where the whole system is controlled by automatic robots. Down the line, there will come a time when this becomes a reality.

The introduction rate of new digital technologies and infrastructure is increasing and hence changing the needs of the users. Public libraries of the future thus must be both responsive and dynamic, adapting in real-time the changing needs of the society. In today’s highly commercialized urban environment, where the need for a renewed culture is needed, the public library acts as a beacon of hope.


Khushboo Patel is an Architect by profession who is now trying to unlearn and reflect on everything she learned in college. She is an avid reader, writer, and traveler who believes that ideas and words can change the world. She says that every place and person has a story that is worth telling and it needs to be told.

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