Cambridge Public Library, Massachusetts, USA. Credit: Robert Benson Photography

+ Modern libraries need flexible spaces so they can adapt to their community’s needs.

Many people used to think that the internet would mean the end of libraries. But today libraries and librarians are providing resources, support and services that you simply can’t get from a computer. That’s why I believe that libraries will continue to exist, and to play a key role in supporting lifelong learning and community cohesion. 

A carefully curated library with an experienced librarian can help you find what you’re looking for much more easily than a search engine. And you’ll encounter useful material you wouldn’t have considered searching for. Libraries are also great places for study, learning, reflection and social interaction, so it is important for society that their true value continues to be realised.  

I’m not just talking about public libraries. There are also academic libraries, and special libraries – such as the corporate library at Arup in Sydney where I work. Our new report, Future Libraries, looks at how all these types of libraries can prosper.

I believe that if they’re to thrive, all libraries need to be flexible, innovative and relevant. 

The physical space, the approach and the range of services for and interactions with the library’s community must all be flexible. The physical space, for example, could be repurposed for events or to create more quiet study spaces. An academic library might find this useful at exam time. 

An innovative library does unexpected things to create intrigue and encourage people to visit. Many public libraries are now offering ‘maker spaces’. These are places for people to come and create; using tools they may not have at home such as 3D printing. That’s very engaging because it stimulates thinking and creativity. In San Francisco, a public library even employs a full-time social worker to help the large homeless population in the local area, reflecting the needs of a specific community.

Relevance is all about value for money. Books, journals and IT infrastructure are all expensive, as is the physical space for a library. Skilled librarians don’t come cheap either! The community that a library serves has to make sure plenty of people are using the library and getting value from it – otherwise perhaps that money could be better spent elsewhere.

Traditionally, libraries were very process-based, and I think that needs shaking up to fit modern users’ needs. In my library, staff don’t sit with the books. That’s deliberate; we find this helps to break the associations that many people have in their minds about what a library is and what librarians do. Books are extremely valuable, of course, but they’re no longer the defining feature of a library.

What would you like to see in your library of the future?