Indoors, they are filled with natural light. Books once packed together in dark corners are now on display on bright, welcoming shelves that could rival those in an Apple store. Some libraries have added outdoor patios and roof decks.
Though printed volumes remain their focal point, the best new libraries offer so much more: computer labs, conference rooms of different sizes, studios for recording podcasts and editing videos; event spaces, hands-on experiences for kids, a cafe, and kitchens where people can learn to cook foods from different cultures.
Call it a new golden era for public libraries worldwide. Some of what are already being dubbed “cultural masterpieces” include:
The Stanley A. Milner Library in Edmonton, Alberta, which has 3-D printers, a sewing center, recording studios, and vinyl and laser cutters for special projects. The bright new interior of stairs and ramps beckons visitors to explore.
The Deichman Bjørvika in Oslo, which won public library of the year in 2021. In addition to stunning reading rooms, it has a cinema, a 200-seat auditorium, cafes, recording studios, rehearsal spaces and game rooms.
The United States also has plenty of laudatory new libraries, including the recently expanded Fayetteville Public Library in Arkansas, which offers an “art and movement” room, an event center and a teaching kitchen, among other amenities. In the heart of Manhattan, the renovated Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library provides not only ample places to read but also a business center, a podcasting studio, a floor dedicated to children and teens, and a rooftop terrace.
D.C.'s newly transformed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library includes a large auditorium, conference center, rooftop terrace, cafe and music production facilities. A colorful ceiling with hanging mobiles adds to the delight.
Branch libraries are also getting makeovers. The new Southwest D.C. library aims to become a neighborhood gathering place, with a meeting room that can fit 100 people and an outdoor porch area.
Many notable renovations in recent years were funded by a combination of taxpayer money and private donations. Now is an ideal time for local governments in the United States to tap into American Rescue Plan funding to jumpstart a library project.
Libraries are the heart of communities. Even at times in the pandemic when physical libraries were closed, libraries loaned e-books and digital movies. More recently, computer labs at public libraries have become a lifeline for people applying for jobs and doing their first Zoom interviews. Some are even lending out laptops and WiFi devices.
As then-American Library Association President Julius C. Jefferson Jr. put it, "Buildings may not have been open, but libraries were never closed.”
Communities that invest in libraries are well prepared for whatever the next chapter brings.