We Depend on Libraries During a Recession

Generational studies have shown that libraries tend to become busier in times of economic downturn.

As public institutions, libraries reflect not just their current community’s wants and needs but also their aspirations. Reflected in a library’s design are not just in its collections and programming but in the mission of the buildings that house them. The world around libraries has changed, and so did their focus, including the types of buildings communities choose to design.

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Ancient Libraries

The library is not a new idea. We have examples from the ancient world from around the globe. However, their mission and function differed significantly from how we engage with libraries today. Two famous examples, one lost long ago, are the Haeinsa Monastery in Mt. Gaya, Korea, and the Library at Alexandra in Egypt. Grand, centralized storehouses of knowledge. The Monastery became the home of the Tripitaka Koreana, a corpus of Buddist doctrinal texts and a center of religious learning. Alexandria’s library acted not only as a receptacle for texts but also attracted many scholars. Some started teaching, making it resemble a modern college in many respects. Both required that rare skill, literacy, making them elite institutions.

Modern Libraries

As literacy rates improved, the mission of the library changed. Most of the earliest libraries in America remained elite-funded and maintained institutions. They used a subscription model, charging to use their materials. Even so-called “public” libraries made assumptions about the types of materials that working-class people would like, giving them access to the periodical room and not the entire building. That began to change in the English-speaking part of the western world due to a change not just in mission.

A new group felt that rather than hoarders of knowledge, public libraries should be institutions of self-improvement. Libraries should be free to access and the books free to check out. This idea got a boost from two men, one American, and one English: Andrew Carnegie and John Passmore Edwards. Both men rose from humble beginnings to positions of prominence and wealth; Carnegie in steel and Edwards in newspaper publishing. Both believed in libraries as engines of improvement through education because they had used them that way.

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In the United States and English-speaking parts of Europe, over 1600 Carnegie libraries were built, many of them still standing and being used as libraries, did not come free. He imposed conditions for receiving a grant to create them. To obtain funding, communities had to:

  1. Provide the land that the community would build the library on rent-free.
  2. Choose from an established set of blueprints. Any deviations from these were the responsibility of the community.
  3. Most importantly, every community must agree to set aside 10% of the grant money from public coffers to fund the library.

Though not as widespread as Carnegie’s, John Passmore Edward’s lifelong commitment to the cause of the common man led him to build 70 public buildings, two dozen of them libraries. Both men share the general example of using their wealth to support the idea that education is the key to self-improvement. The building of institutions that played a life-altering role for generations in the communities followed. They took advantage of their generosity by embedding the idea of a publicly funded, free institution of learning as necessary and a place of public pride.

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Expanding the Vision

The twenty-first century has once again altered our vision of the library. As the types of materials expanded, from movies and music to computers and 3D printers, libraries have become one of the last public spaces you can use for free. The first wave of buildings, designed in the Beaux Arts style, are grand community spaces with light and open space. Designed to be both beautiful and practical, they were rather staid places. With the coming of the new century, we have seen libraries once again alter their vision. The growing body of materials and services has inspired the next generation of architecture. Instead of pillars and wood, they have morphed into sleek futuristic buildings of glass and steel. Highlighting the next age of information storage and access as dynamic and not bound by tradition.

Libraries are evolving, expanding into areas that Carnegie and Edwards could never foresee. The ancient Egyptians, seeking to showcase their power, built the library at Alexandra. The city of Seattle used the main branch to show the citizens of Washington, and the world, that libraries, and the buildings that house them, are not just boxes. What will come next?