What’s a Library?

A new community branch of the New York Public Library opened in the Bronx this week. I’ve watched construction of the just-unveiled Kingsbridge library with interest over the past year or so, as I’ve traveled to a periodic pet-sitting gig nearby in the Riverdale section. The very fact that a new branch library was being built got my attention as I explored a neighborhood I hadn’t visited before. The modern, $17.7 million concrete and glass structure seemed a sign—along with some other residential construction and the “tarting up,” as a friend calls gentrification-driven business renovations, of the local supermarket— that maybe this was a community on the upswing. That seemed particularly true as the new library stands in stark contrast to its predecessor across the street, a small, well-worn space in a rental building.

The old library was pretty charmless, with barebones furnishings and bookshelves lined with volumes that had obviously passed through many, many hands. I had the occasion to use its wi-fi access when my host’s spotty Internet service threatened a project deadline. Leaving that dreary venue and glancing across the street at the design of the new library seemed somehow so—hopeful. Where the old library was concealed behind basic plate-glass doors, with reading rooms positioned one flight up (adult) and one down (children’s) from a plain Jane entry, the new structure was showing to have an expansive, glass-walled front through which the stacks could already be glimpsed. In other words, it is the epitome of recent, transparent, open and welcoming public design.

Frankly, I was thrilled for the librarians and patrons who would get to make that transition. Yet, at the same time, the very idea of building a new library brought all kinds of questions to mind, mainly: What exactly is a public library today? With the dominance of digital technology and the runaway success of e-books, what role does a physical branch library play and how does it do so? Is the traditional array of shelving and stacks, from which visitors pull books, DVDS and CDs to be checked out by librarians, what a community library needs anymore? And even if it does so today, will that be the case ten years down the road?

I had to wonder how many of those questions had been asked, and how much the answers might have changed in the decade it took to plan, design, fund and build an $18 million library. One would assume, or hope, that the powers-that-be within the New York Public Library system have monitored cutting-edge trends and been far-sighted with regard to public needs. But just how easy is it to plan a library facility today, as technological advances are changing the landscape of communication at a turnover rate of every couple of years, not every couple of decades?

Perhaps that’s why press releases about the library’s opening stressed the fact that it’s the first green building in the NYPL axis, with a green roof that will collect rainwater, and that it offers state-of-the-art Internet and wi-fi.  Green buildings are a hot ticket at the moment; it’s more difficult to put into words, or down in print, what state-of-the-art means for libraries today, or in the expected lifespan of this facility.

I’m not begrudging the Knightsbridge/Riverdale community of its new library. The former facility had been in use since 1959, it seemed to have steady traffic, and from personal experience, I can say local residents truly deserve something better. But the question remains: Will we even need branch public libraries stocked with physical materials within the next few decades, since so much of a branch’s core operations—circulation—can be done easily online? Or will branch libraries become an indicator of the divide between haves and have-nots, those who can afford the equipment to access e-books and electronic communications vs. those who are unable to do so, and rely on what they can retrieve for free at the library? Will branch libraries be a point of digital access for such users by adopting services like the e-book rentals being talked about for schools and universities? And if so, how easily can a facility designed say, five years ago, and opening today, adapt to the changes? Will needed funding be easy to come by?

I suspect that branch libraries, like other kinds of public education and arts institutions, will emphasize their role in community events. The Kingsbridge library grand opening ceremony certainly played up its community-gathering-place aspect, and from what I’ve seen, it serves an important role for students and seniors looking to learn about or access the Internet. As a book nerd who has loved stalking library shelves since I was a kid, I certainly hope such a significant community resource can continue to thrive; as a taxpayer, I have equal hope that the potential to upgrade physical facilities was as carefully considered at this pivotal moment in communications history.

6.30.11

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