Now that a digital copy of the Library of Congress’s entire book collection could fit in a single shoebox, the future of the contemporary library is up for grabs. The New York Public Library’s proposed reconfiguration
of its Manhattan headquarters is only the most recent high-visibility entrant in a debate
that has been ongoing
since the mid-1990s, manifested in the press and in a series of large urban central library projects in Berlin, Singapore, Seattle, and elsewhere. What should a contemporary library be? Seattle is one oft-cited exemplar: there Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture jettisoned the reading rooms, study carrels, and hushed whispers of the traditional library in favor of a dramatic multi-story “living room” where patrons could, according to the architects, “eat, yell, or play chess.” But to find architects, librarians, and municipalities who have re-conceptualized the contemporary public library with a more nuanced and promising vision, we must turn our attentions away from noisy Seattle and other large projects toward the modest community library.
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