About a decade ago libraries across the world faced a dilemma. Their vital functions — to supply books and access to information for the public — were being replaced by Amazon, e-books and public Wi-Fi.
To fight for their survival, said Loida Garcia-Febo, president of the American Library Association, libraries tried to determine what other role they could play. “They invented these amazing new initiatives that are finally launching now,” she said. It took them this long to raise money and build them.
Libraries are certainly having a moment. In the past few years dozens of new high-profile libraries have opened close to home and across the world. And they certainly don’t resemble the book-depot vision of libraries from the past.
To attract visitors from home and abroad, many libraries have advanced, even quirky amenities. They have rooftop gardens, public parks, verandas, play spaces, teen centers, movie theaters, gaming rooms, art galleries, restaurants and more. The new library in Aarhus, Denmark, has a massive gong that rings whenever a mother in a nearby hospital gives birth.
Ms. Garcia-Febo knows of multiple libraries offering free work space for growing numbers of entrepreneurs. These aren’t just alternatives to coffee shops, spaces for people to pull out their laptops and work. The libraries have fancy meeting rooms for them to meet with potential clients, business librarians who can help them solve their financial challenges, and classes to teach them vital skills. At no cost, it’s a much cheaper option than spending hundreds of dollars for a desk at WeWork.
Libraries are supplying the public with other features they may not have at home. Twenty years ago that was books. Now it’s expensive new technology like 3D printers, laser cutters and broadcasting studios for podcasts and movies. Visitors are going to libraries to try before they buy. Other people just want to play with something that may not ever be able to afford.
Meeting diverse needs requires a sophisticated building, and many libraries are employing the world’s best architects to create showstopping designs. The new buildings are transforming skylines, going viral on social media and attracting tourists from all over the world. For many of these libraries the books are overshadowed by other amenities.
Here’s a look at some of the world’s newest and most creative libraries.
Helsinki Central Library Oodi
On Dec. 6, 2018, Finland celebrated its 101st anniversary of independence from Russia. One day before, the Finns received an anniversary present: a new central library named Oodi.
The library’s facade is made almost entirely of spruce, sourced from Finland. It has steel and glass structures mixed in, creating a soft, inviting look. The Helsinki government allocated 68 million euros to the project as well as a prime spot opposite the Finnish Parliament (the federal government provided 30 million more). A local firm, ALA Architects, won the commission over 543 other competitors.
Only one third of the 185,000-square-foot space is allocated to books (transported by specially designed robots); the rest is community space designed for meeting and doing.
At the “book heaven” on the top floor, visitors sprawl out among potted trees and on specially commissioned wool carpets. An urban workshop on the second floor has sewing machines, scanners and printers as well as laser cutters and soldering stations, with spaces allocated to sewing, making badges, and even playing the drums. There is room for pop-up markets and entrepreneurs can rent out work stations to meet with colleagues or clients. There are pop-up information desks where organizations can inform visitors about their work.
In March, Oodi welcomed its one millionth visitor. “We have tourists from all over the world visiting, but mainly from Europe mostly, China, Japan and America,” said Anna-Maria Soininvaara, the library’s director. “Usually they want to experience the Maker Space and ask where all the books are because the shelves are always half empty because they’re all on loan.”
Museum of Literature
On St. Stephen’s Green, the Central Park of Dublin, there are three grand Georgian buildings, one of which was built by the architect Richard Cassels (also known as Richard Castle) in the 1700s. Behind them are lush Victorian gardens that open up to more secret oases. One has a 200-year-old strawberry tree.
These structures were previously the original home of the University College Dublin, where many of Ireland’s most famous writers studied. On September 20, they will be open to the public for the first time, as home to the Museum of Literature Ireland, or MoLI.
Visitors will be able to see the old physics theater where James Joyce set a chapter of his “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and the original print of “Ulysses,” famously called copy number 1. The bedroom of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is still intact and will be available for viewing. Private letters from Joyce have been pulled out of storage for display.
The museum will also have a Joyce Research library and a reading room. There will be seats for working in the garden. “We are re-landscaping what we think is the only publicly accessible historic house garden in Dublin,” said Simon O’Connor, the museum’s director. “We take that responsibility seriously.”
He’s also excited about the museum’s radio station that will broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Academics, musicians, and writers passing through the cities can stop in,” he said. “This is a living, breathing thing.”
Calgary’s New Central Library has a train running through it, as the site was designed to accommodate an active Light Rail Transit Line that already existed. The lobby is an arched bridge that lets locomotives go under it, and in “living rooms” patrons can sit on swirly chairs and watch them zoom by all day.
The library, which opened last November, was built to replace the existing downtown branch. “The old central library location was almost too small from the moment it opened,” said Kate Thompson, the vice president of development who led the project. “Calgary’s population has doubled since that time.” The new building offers 60 percent more space.
The library goes from “fun” to “serious” as visitors ascend the spiral staircase. On lower floors there are two cafes, a teen center, a children’s space and a 320-seat theater. The highest floor is the Great Reading Room, a more traditional library space surrounded by wooden planks. “There are no signs on the walls to ask for silence,” said Ms. Thompson. “But the room is always in a state of hushed silence as people study and read within the wooden oasis.”
Calgary is one of many Canadian cities getting a new super-library, as the locals call them. Ottawa is spending $192.9 million on a library scheduled to open in 2024 that will highlight views of the scenic Ottawa River and an exhibit space for the national archives of Canada. And in February 2020, Edmonton, Alberta, plans to debut its new Milner Library. Among its amenities will be a 65-inch multi-touch table in the lobby for visitors to play games, participate in surveys and make digital art.
Qatar National Library
Designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the Qatar National Library, which opened in April 2018, is all about symbolism, a physical representation of the country’s reverence for learning.
The entry way is full of stacks housing almost one million books, including 137,000 for children and 35,000 for teens. “The way they are built on an incline, it looks like they are coming out of the floor,” said Dr. Sohair Wastawy, the library’s executive director. “It elevates the books and the knowledge people are looking for.”
The 72-foot-tall ceiling is made entirely of glass, drilling home the message that light is essential to learning. The Heritage Library, composed of 11 rooms full of objects significant to Qatar and the region, is sunk 20 feet into the ground; it looks like an excavation site. “The symbolism is that heritage is the root of the nation, the root of the land,” Dr. Wastawy said.
What the library has in looks it also has in programming. Every month the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra performs for the public for free. This is only one of the 80 to 90 free events the library holds monthly. One of the most popular activities is a knitting group. Women come every Thursday and stay for four hours. There are labs for writing music, broadcast rooms with green screens, and play spaces for children of all ages.
“The public didn’t have that kind of community space, only cafes and shops to meet,” said Ms. Wastaway. “Now the library is the place the entire family can come for the entire day without getting bored.”
Tianjin Binhai Library
The Tianjin Binhai Library was built for practical purposes, to serve the Binhai New Area, which was formed in 2009 by the merger of three districts of Tianjin, a port city in northeastern China. It opened in October 2017 and has everything you would expect from a library: reading rooms, learning spaces, book storage and a large archive. But the majority of guests don’t go there to utilize the services. They visit from all over the world to see the fantastical architecture created by the Dutch firm MVRDV and local architects from the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute.
“I think for the first week the library had around 10,000 visitors per day,” said Winy Maas, a founding partner with MVRDV and the architect responsible for the library. “People were lining up in the street to enter!”
The 363,000-square-foot space is painted floor to ceiling in pure white. In the middle of the space is a spherical auditorium nicknamed “the eye.” Around it are undulating floor-to-ceiling shelves that form waves. On the lower levels there are shelves with real books. On the upper levels the shelves contain aluminum plates with paintings of books on them, due in part to fire regulations.) Staircases are incorporated into the bookshelves: It’s a popular place for selfies and Instagram posts.
The space also has two rooftop decks offering views of the surrounding area. More traditional parts of the library are found to the side and below the attention-grabbing lobby.
The Central Library in Austin opened its doors on October 2017 with the Texas belief that bigger is always better. With six floors and 200,000-square-feet of space, it is twice the size of the former Old Faulk Central Library and located less than half a mile away.
The library sits next to Shoal Creek and Lady Bird Lake, areas of natural beauty. Many amenities take advantage of the location by focusing on the outdoors. Wrap-around-porches serve as reading rooms. The children’s room has a reading porch adjacent to it and a giant chess set just outside.
“The design gives you a sense of peace,” said Ms. Garcia-Febo, the library association president who recently visited the space. “It is very helpful for communities to have these spaces where they can feel peace.”
There is a seed library where users can check out seeds and plant them at home. The library even makes its own solar energy (30 percent of the building’s energy is generated this way) and collects rainwater in a 373,000 gallon cistern. It is used in the restrooms and for landscape irrigation.
One of the even quirkier features of the new library is a “technology petting zoo” on the fifth floor where visitors can play with new gadgets they don’t yet (or might not ever) own. They can draw on tablets, test out Philips Hue smart Wifi-lights, create their own model on a 3D printer, or record a song on a Spire Studio.
This library is designed to see and be seen. The top of the building cantilevers, seen from downtown Oslo and the train station. Large, open entrances will be placed on the east, west, and south sides to welcome visitors from many directions. At night the library will change colors to reflect the events taking place that evening. Viewing areas inside the library will offer spectacular views of Oslo, the fjord, and the city’s green, rolling hills.
Inside the library, a room storing secret manuscripts won’t be opened until 2114, part of The Future Library Project conceived by the artist Katie Paterson. Every year from 2014 to 2114 a popular writer is creating a unique manuscript written on local paper (a forest of 1,000 trees was planted for the project.) After the 100 year period they can finally be read publicly.
More visitors will use the library’s entertainment facilities, including a large movie theater and a gaming zone that allows patrons to battle one another in public. (It’s one way to get teens in the door.)