Prototyping tomorrow’s libraries

What might libraries be like decades from now? A decade of Dutch exploration uncovered many possible pathways toward the future.

A few weeks ago we talked about the Dutch LibrarySchool, a new educational program designed to infuse librarians with innovative thinking as they step into the future.

Now, the prequel. A little history.

The LibrarySchool didn’t come out of nowhere. Many of the principles and practices embedded in the school emerged from a series of forward-looking projects guided by LibrarySchool founder Rob Bruijnzeels over more than a decade, under the auspices of the Netherlands Public Library Association (the VOB). Then head of policy development for the VOB, Bruijnzeels led what became, in essence, an innovation lab for exploring the concept of the public library and testing ideas for future expressions of the library. That laboratory has now moved into the LibrarySchool.

“I have actually seen very few educational programs that were as well prepared as this one,” says Bert Mulder, curator of the LibrarySchool’s “free space” activities. “In years coming up to the LibrarySchool, there was a whole series of projects… with people from all over society… to see what new forms of cultural expression will be like, to sensitize everybody, including the librarians, of the possible forms, and also enriching their vocabulary for new forms.”

A wide variety of activities, all related to what Bruijnzeels calls “the development and actualization of a vision for the future,” were based on the same premises:

  • We can influence our future. Each project, each vision of the library, finds a hopeful and energetic starting point, one rooted in the belief that we have the power to move our lives and our libraries forward in positive directions.
  • Libraries will continue to have a role in society, and future libraries may take many forms. Very different kinds of libraries can and will coexist. “There is a future for small-scale undertakings alongside the large-scale ones, for digital alongside paper,” says Bruijnzeels. “Similarly, there is not just one concept for the library of the future. Libraries will come in all shapes and sizes, and not necessarily in the shape of buildings.”
  • Collaboration—both with users and with other organizations—is becoming essential. Libraries share interests with other cultural and social institutions, and collaboration can enhance our value and effectiveness. And in today’s participatory culture, user involvement in the creation of the library can help keep us grounded and relevant in our communities.

The journey began with Libraries 2040, an initiative that engaged various communities in the process of imagining what libraries might be like decades in the future.

Libraries 2040

Bruijnzeels conceived Libraries 2040 back in the year 2000. Initially, the program explored the future of libraries by developing prototypes that challenged traditional thinking about libraries, collections, and services. The effort was collaborative: Dutch librarians worked with library users, educators, architects, and artists to envision what libraries might be like a misty forty years down the road. Together the cohorts brainstormed, collected public input, and tried out new models, beginning with imagination and ending with a steady stream of new ideas.

The goal was not to set expectations for a probable future based on today’s libraries, trends, and data, but instead to start with a blank map and explore what people dreamed of when they imagined a library. As you might expect, the dreams of children were unlike the visions of architects.

The program generated seven wildly different prototypes. Among them: a secret outdoor library created by and for children, dubbed the Partisan Library. A centralized, high-tech superlibrary housed in a spiral-shaped, skyscraping structure designed by architect Winy Maas. A collection of intimate libraries in private homes, conceived by the community of Brabant. And a dynamic, hotel-like public library, where books and people could come and go 24 hours a day. While the original prototypes no longer exist, the exercise sparked ideas that found their way into existing libraries.

The Library of 100 Talents

One vision that made its way to reality was the Library of 100 Talents, a program that followed the trail of the children’s Partisan Library. Here, librarians applied Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, which redefines intelligence as a varied set of abilities, from linguistic to musical to kinesthetic, and recognizes that each child has unique talents and expertise.

The Library of 100 Talents aimed to reconceive young people’s libraries based on the ideas and talents of the children who inhabit them. In pilot programs, children were challenged to structure their own library spaces based on their own ways of thinking, learning, and handling information. The children’s multiple talents helped define new interfaces for the library, so that for every child the library would be an inspiring place to participate in his or her own way. Concepts found practical applications in the new Central Public Library of Amsterdam, which opened in 2007, and other libraries around Holland.

Children became cocreators of the library. “Children can be fantastic designers and librarians if you only take them seriously and challenge them to take the world of their own ideas as the starting point for designing the library,” says Bruijnzeels. “The youth library of the future is something we must shape with a great deal of imagination and inspiration, and by working together with children.”

The Architecture of Knowledge

2009 brought a closer look at library spaces. The Architecture of Knowledge, a collaborative project of the Netherlands Public Library Association and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI), explored principles for future library architecture at a time when the ways in which people find and use information are changing dramatically. What role does the library’s physical building play? How can we adapt its spaces to new ways of creating and sharing information in a community?

A lecture series became a prelude to a two-week workshop. International experts presented concepts of collective knowledge, thoughts on the concept of public space, and insights into how the library’s products—information and knowledge—are created and consumed. Then, in the workshop, teams of international students researched and developed designs for future libraries. Students and mentors came from diverse backgrounds, from art and film to architecture and science, bringing perspectives that helped them challenge the notion of what a library could be.

“The new library will offer shelter to new functions,” says Bruijnzeels. It will be “a building and institution which will make the collection and its users special. The library wants to create richness and surprise with its collection, wants to tell stories. In so doing the library wants to become an inspiring source of culture instead of the umpteenth information center or café with newspapers.”

A permanent laboratory

In 2011, the library laboratory took up residence in the Dutch Library School. There, more experiments are in the works—experiments that reflect on the role of the library and encourage new ways of thinking, expanding the definition of the library and reconceiving the role of the user.

“The library needs to reinvent itself and break new ground, but must all the while be conscious of standing in a long and venerable tradition. If you do not know where you are coming from, you are bound to get lost on the way to the future,” says Bruijnzeels. “Striking a balance between tradition and change… and simultaneously being able to evaluate changes in society and analyze the consequences of these changes for public libraries—this is the kind of open attitude we need if we want to continue to be able to provide answers to questions arising in society.”

What will our future libraries be like? Well, what do we want them to be like? What will society need from a library? Many new pathways are waiting to be explored.

Resources

A Fresh Look at the Library” (2007) (PDF). A group of Dutch librarians explores how the wants and needs of today’s society are radically different from those of 10 or 20 years ago.

Projects on the future of libraries. Scroll down and click on the project logos for English-language materials on Libraries 2040, the Library of 100 Talents, and other projects on the future of libraries led by Rob Bruijnzeels.

The Library of 100 Talents (De Bibliotheken van 100 Talenten). A three-volume set of books: The Idea (Het Idee), It Can Be Done (Het Kan), and You Can Do It! (Je Kunt Het!). Note that these are bilingual editions, in both English and Dutch, even though WorldCat doesn’t mention English.

The Architecture of Knowledge project website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“There is not just one concept for the library of the future. Libraries will come in all shapes and sizes, and not necessarily in the shape of buildings.”

—Rob Bruijnzeels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The new library will offer shelter to new functions… The library wants to become an inspiring source of culture instead of the umpteenth information center or café with newspapers.”

—Rob Bruijnzeels

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