What comes to mind when you imagine yourself in a library? Sneezing as you walk between dusty oak shelves lined with thousands of monochromatic books? Or reclining in a bright blue egg chair surrounded by state-of-the art ceiling fixtures, a colorful collection of novels, graphic novels, CDs, and magazines, and a wall of self check-out counters?
According to Britannica, libraries are a “collection of books used for reading or study, or the building or room in which such a collection is kept.” Creative and academic writing have always shared the shelves for public discourse and personal curiosity, hooking a myriad of different readers who share the same goal: find and read books. For a long time, this goal was the sole purpose of libraries, no matter what architectural design they chose for themselves.
The proliferation of digital resources — audiobooks, digital archives, PDFs — has vastly altered the purpose of the institution. One of the earliest libraries that I can remember from childhood was the Eldredge Public Library in northern Massachusetts, built in 1894. I could see how it incorporated both tradition and modernity in its design and the execution of its mission.
Whether I stopped by in a car or on a bike, my family and I always used back roads and alleyways to get there. Though it allowed us to avoid traffic more often, the streets were more cracked and hilly such that biking there felt more tiring and difficult than it actually was.
The parking lot was tiny, about ten spaces big in my mind, with pine trees huddled over a cobblestone path leading to the back door. The doors were over-automated: if you tried to push them closed, they would push against your hand and resume their original position until they could close by themselves. You absolutely could not close those doors yourself.
There were no self check-out counters. I would always shyly approach the front desk where the librarian could scan my books with her handheld device. It rarely took me long to find what I was looking for since I mostly searched for the same genre, and the children’s section offered few of them.
The adult section felt entirely prohibited. Not that I would find interest there, but the space felt so antiquated and anti-child: oil paintings of unknown men from two hundred years prior stared at conference-room length tables where frowning people worked for hours. The books looked heavy and identical, like clones of the same incomprehensible story.
I never really utilized that library’s resources save for getting books from time to time. As the years passed and I moved to California, I wondered if Eldredge would always stay that way, dusty and dimly lit and traditional. Being located in rural Massachusetts, there was a lot of antiquity and presence of the old guard, mostly consisting of rich retirees that came and went with the seasons.
My assumptions were disproven by my recent browse of Eldredge’s website: they host author talks, writing groups, and book clubs, actively engaging in the community. A detailed calendar for the current month exhibits a busy schedule of their daily services. I’m proud of their efforts, even if their website design looks as though it was from the early aughts.
The Los Gatos Public Library in northern California, which I visited throughout high school, was of the future: thin metal sheets angled over the windows to deflect sunlight while still offering those inside a view of the redwood trees and sprawling parking lot. Expensive swivel chairs made to support your back and fix your posture. The walls featured a selective color palette of gray, white, blue, and pale green except for the children’s section, which also featured yellow and a bold hint of orange.
Though appreciative and intrigued by the two very different libraries, I feel somewhat stupefied by the ones I continue to see throughout California. A portion of the Santa Barbara Public Library on State Street has been under construction for several years as they create a brand-new pavilion for socializing, relaxing, and reading outside. The library’s interior incorporates both warmer wood tones, bringing to mind carpentry and autumn, as well as cooler tones associated with peace, the ocean (fitting since we’re by the coast), and modernity.
Now, libraries don’t just hold collections of literature, and they’re not just for people who are trying to find and read books. They are study spaces for students who may not have a place to work as well at home. They educate younger students by bringing them together with educational activities. They allow community development through public programs to foster a sense of belonging. They host programs for patrons of all ages, encouraging participation for many more types of readers and library enthusiasts.
Over the pandemic, librarians at the Los Gatos Public Library adapted their programs to virtual spaces, offering the same functions, if not more, over Zoom. Since quarantine ended, they have been able to offer in-person classes for sewing, knitting, arts and crafts, as well as movie nights, gaming sessions, and a program for patrons to digitize their vintage media. For younger children, they host puppet shows and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) programs in which children build and launch paper rockets, as well as engage in other activities that help them understand the intersection of art and technology better.
Libraries today serve more functions than they ever have before. Increased accessibility has led to discussions about limitations of literature deemed too controversial to be fully celebrated, as well as further discussions on how to reach as many patrons as possible. Though their architecture may seem outdated, their use and joy have not, and will never be.