The most beautiful library in the world?

I was a bit out of my depth – but not completely uncomfortable – when I attended BibCamp3 in Hannover, Germany, on Friday and Saturday. I had been coerced into attending by Martin Fenner, who was one of the organisers. But that wasn’t the only reason I attended.

When I don’t infiltrate librarian circles – although it turned out in a general ‘hands up’ at the end of the meeting that only half of the attendees were actual librarians, so I wasn’t completely out of place – my day job revolves around setting up the administrative structures of the European XFEL facility (hey, someone has to do it!). And even though our actual building will not be done for a few more years, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to start thinking about what it will – or should – look like. And that includes our library.

We’re building a new, state-of-the-art facility in a rapidly developing, exciting research field. And I am convinced that if the science is going to be world-class, the library should be too! So I attended the meeting in the hopes of getting a bit of a feel for what ‘the library of the future’ should look like – what the trends are, what to look out for, what future developments we should anticipate.

I know I should have suggested this as a session. We discussed it briefly in a small group on Friday over a beer, but I ended up not doing it – partly because I wanted to sit in on other sessions instead. So when I got invited to start off the closing discussion with an ‘observation of the meeting’ together with three other participants, I tried to challenge the audience in a last-ditch effort: what should the library of the future look like? What functionality/features should it have? Would it even be a physical space, or some kind of a service department or help desk that researchers call? If it was a physical space, what should it look like? Would there {gasp} even be any books in it?

Maybe predictably, nobody picked up the idea. At that point, as someone pointed out to me afterwards on the way home in the tram, everyone was exhausted from the two days of intense, barcamp-style meeting. But I was a bit surprised when he gave me the other reason he thought people weren’t into it: “there is no payback – designing and setting up a new library is not what they do, it doesn’t affect them, so they wouldn’t get anything out of it”.

But surely the idea is exciting? A librarian’s ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ dream? Kind of like the “what research project would you work on if you had all the funding in the world and there were no limits” question for scientists?

Back home, just for fun, I googled the phrase “the most beautiful library in the world”, which brought up a number of pretty, identical-looking sites. And really, those are some stunning libraries – surely, pictures like that make everyone want to sit down there and start reading a book? But beauty is not really the primary goal here, is it? So I googled “the most functional library in the world”, which led me to this much more promising-looking site, which lists the world’s ‘top 25 most modern libraries’ with a short review of what makes them special.

While poking around, I also came across a UK-based site for Designing Libraries, which I will have to spend some time looking into.

But for now, I want to repeat my challenge: what would you – scientist or librarian – want to see in the library of the future, including architecture, technology, staff and anything else you can think of?

A wall of books at the British Library – a tad intimidating, perhaps?
(photo by Steve Cadman)


This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The original post has been moved to SciLogs.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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31 Responses to The most beautiful library in the world?

  1. Stephen Curry says:

    Just buy everyone an iPad…? (I’m only half-joking).

  2. steffi suhr says:

    It’s one of the first things that comes to mind, isn’t it? But do you mean there will still be a common room where everyone uses their iPad (or equivalent)? And will there be librarians who take people (especially first-time-library-visitors and undergrads) through the process of finding relevant literature etc.? Or should that be done by educational software, and the librarians manage it all behind the scenes? Personally, I’d prefer to have people there.
    By the way: a (librarian) friend told me somewhere else in response to this post that “the debate on libraries as public spaces was over a decade ago”. But a decade ago is eternity in internet years, so maybe it’s worthwhile reviving that discussion a bit – also thinking about developments in science publishing, technology advances, etc. And I’m after the modern library for scientists… I don’t recall scientist colleagues ever really seriously discussing what they want to see in/expect from a library. A science library might look significantly different from a public library – there might even be differences between natural sciences and social sciences/etc.?

  3. Lou Woodley says:

    Great question, Steffi. I think Martin covereed a lot of the answers as to what the libraries of the future should actually be used for in his blog post from a few months ago. He explained libraries will more and more become places we go to for advice and/or training on how to use reference managers, online searches etc. I agree with you that real people will be an essential part of this and so there will probably need to be training and demo areas, as well as quiet study rooms for users to plug themselves in to the various resources.
    In terms of design, it would be great if someone put together the various studies on what makes a good learning environment and used that to influence the overall design e.g. This post by Dave Munger explains how being exposed to images of natural environments during your study breaks actually helps restore your focus when you return to the task.

  4. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks Lou – I see that Martin has covered a lot of the ground already, and there are more useful links in his post… I’ll have to catch up on my reading!

  5. Christian Hauschke says:

    Great question, indeed. And I’m sure it would have been a great session. At least I was stuffed with new ideas the end of the Bibcamp, so your questions came up a bit late for me.
    And I’m absolutely sure, too, that your idea to design a new library is exactly what librarians often think about. Of course, nearly no one has the possibility to do so. But a new library can exemplify how other libraries could look like.
    Just a few words, thoughts:
    I’m a librarian, and I’m library patron, too. I like the idea of a room, where I can study for myself. Where I can read or contemplate my readings. This room should provide space for discussion, too. As Martin pointed out: A library should have a coffee bar.
    The next library is a different library. And it should be build on its users imaginations. So every library should look different. But I guess that you won’t go absolutely wrong with the idea of the next library as an open space for communication, knowledge sharing and expert advice.

  6. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks Christian – and it was good to meet you, by the way!
    So what should the furniture look like – cushy armchairs? Desks? Coffee tables? A bit of everything? One big room or many small rooms? A big room with some kind of mobile dividers that can be used to create smaller spaces as needed (this would have to be done in a way that the acoustics work/it’s quiet where needed)?
    I’m obviously trying to crowdsource our library here 😉

  7. Ken Doyle says:

    I could see future librarians being AI, and the collections being entirely virtual, so you could access any library anywhere on the planet (or off it, for that matter) without leaving your chair. If you have a chair…

  8. Christian Hauschke says:

    Ken,
    maybe you thought of the “Time Machine”?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e30XhIjFmKM
    Good idea, and a really brilliant library! But I doubt that Steffi wants to wait until the Vox NY 114 is constructed.

  9. Martin Fenner says:

    Steffi, very nice post. Maybe this would be a good topic for one of the next conferences (BibCamp 2011?). Some of my thoughts (and library pictures) are here (a talk I gave in March).

  10. Ken Doyle says:

    @ Christian: I never watched the movie (I was afraid it would be a letdown from the book) but will have to check it out now.

  11. steffi suhr says:

    Thank you for the link to your talk, Martin – I found out yesterday that there seems to be much more room at our place for ‘library outreach’ and showing people what’s possible than I thought… want to come give that talk in Hamburg? (As Stephen said above: “I’m only half-joking”…)
    @Ken: it’s not so bad, once you get over the cheese factor 🙂

  12. Martin Fenner says:

    Steffi, I would be happy to discuss this further. But you should find an architect interested in building great libraries.

  13. steffi suhr says:

    Martin – I disagree: what we need to find is a librarian who would be enthusiastic about contributing their ideas! The architect is very important as well of course, but comes second place in this case.

  14. Cath Ennis says:

    I like a physical space. But then again, I’m biased. As I said on a post elsewhere :
    “I wrote my entire PhD thesis in my institute’s library, which was usually empty and also overlooked the break room, so I knew when to go and join my friends for coffee and lunch breaks. The resident librarian was absolutely invaluable to my success. Why? She brought me cups of tea and home-made cake, and consoled me after I had a yelling match with my supervisor one day. I won’t have a word said against the profession :)”
    In my current job, I find my desk in an open-plan area just outside my boss’s door to be too distracting in terms of noise and traffic. I was just given my first laptop in this job, and I’m planning to spend a lot more time in the library with my new toy when things just get too loud and busy at my desk! I’d much rather be around lovely books and journals and studious people than around people who expect me to know where my boss is and won’t stop asking.
    As for actually finding articles: it’s been years since I needed an article or a book I couldn’t find online. Again, it was during my PhD, and our lovely lovely librarian always got my inter-library loans sorted out very quickly and efficiently. And she also gave me my own copy of the key to the hard copy journal archives!

  15. steffi suhr says:

    Cath, that’s my impression too: librarians are teachers more than they used to be? I think that we belong to a generation who is more or less self-taught with respect to literature searches, and we’ve learned somewhat in parallel to the developments on the internet, search engines etc. But as there are more and more options and information on offer, maybe the self-teaching has reached its limits and those not motivated are losing out – there are so many people who couldn’t care less about finding the best reference manager etc. So information management should be a firm requirement in curricula, rather than being taught as a kind of afterthought?
    I have to say I’m on a short vacation right now – and so is my brain… so I am not sure whether what I am saying makes sense.

  16. Christian Hauschke says:

    Just a short note in between: This is how the “reading lounge” of my library looks like:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/bfhh/4605630285/.
    I was only able to make a photo of one corner. The rest was in use, and I didn’t want to disturb anyone. :o)

  17. steffi suhr says:

    That looks lovely, Christian – would be a nice corner for a nap, too! 😉

  18. Frank Norman says:

    Steffi – sorry to come rather late to this discussion. It is a topic that has been in my mind for a few years now (since about 2003!), as the possibility of my institute moving to a new building has become stronger. It now looks like we will move in 2015 and plans for the building are proceeding apace.
    I think the key is to figure what the library service will be – this is the key. It is wrong to think of a library as just a place as this does not capture the essence.
    I believe there is still some role for a space with equipment and knowledgeable, helpful staff, and perhaps even some printed materials (those that are not yet conveniently available in electronic form). In our new building (which will be a much larger institute) it is planned to provide write-up space throughout the building, so there will be less call for central provision of desk space. There will still be a need for overspill space, and space for visitors. Some people may also prefer to get away from their lab area – hiding from interruptions – to study and write.
    I further think that the Library should be strongly keyed in to the institute’s public engagement strategy. As curators of the institute identity and history (and intellectual achievements) we can help to engage the outside world. We could also (though this will depend on resources available) help to provide scientific information to people curious about our areas of science.
    As for the service, I think curating those outputs will be an important area, including data – see Dorothea Salo’s recent article http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue64/salo/ and providing all the information resources automagically in the background will of course continue.
    Some of the work will be done not in the library but out and about – either peripatetic or embedded librarians (or ‘informationists’ to use one vogue term).

  19. steffi suhr says:

    Hello Frank! That’s the beauty of online discussions, isn’t it – it’s hardly ever ‘too late’ to contribute.
    Incorporating public engagement into what’s going on in the library sounds intriguing, but my limited imagination is picturing people who come to the library to work/concentrate being disrupted by a large group of – say – teenagers on a school trip or families on a day out. How would you avoid that?
    You move in 2015? Hey – wanna swap library plans some time? (Disclosure: I do not have much to offer yet…)

  20. Frank Norman says:

    Steffi – Perhaps I am a little naive on this, but I like to think there is room for engagement beyond just students/families. I wasn’t envisaging groups so much as individuals. Not so much coming into the quiet space of a library in groups, but perhaps the library having a relation to the public area of the building, and able to provide extra information assistance to those requiring it. Clearly some more thought needed to develop this, though so far I haven’t had much luck in getting anyone to listen to me ;-(
    When we have a library plan I will be happy to let you see it! I hope that we will start discussions this autumn, though I just learnt that some people outside the project think it is already decided!

  21. steffi suhr says:

    Ah!
    the library having a relation to the public area of the building, and able to provide extra information assistance to those requiring it
    Yes, I am starting to be able to see it. Keep going with it! I will mull it over as well – ‘outreach’ is another area where we need to get busy, and this would be a good opportunity.

  22. Frank Norman says:

    Steffi – I just saw an interesting {post from Lorcan Dempsey about library space. It is a bit focused on Universities, but I think some of what he says about the “huge rise in demand for semi-public spaces that can be informally appropriated to ad-hoc workspaces” applies to research institutes too.

  23. Christian Hauschke says:

    Somehow the automatic trackbacks do not seem to work with Nature blogs. So here’s a manual one: in this posting (German) I mention Steven Johnsons TED talk about creativity and the ideal environment for innovation.
    A must-see for all of you thinking about the library of the future.

  24. steffi suhr says:

    Hi Christian – and sorry! Your trackback is not showing up on my dashboard.
    Same to Frank: I actually did not get a notification of your last comment – strangely though, I did get one for the comment by Christian now. {sigh}
    Thank you both for the links and food for thought!

  25. steffi suhr says:

    Hello Frank, hello Christian,
    apologies, I seem to have some issues here – I did not get a notification for Frank’s comment and the trackback by Christian did not show up on my dashboard (although I did get one for the comment Christian then left).
    Thank you both for the links and food for thought!

  26. steffi suhr says:

    Oh goodness, this is weird. I wrote one reply, hit "submit", and it disappeared. Then I wrote another, hit "submit" again, and the previous reply showed up. I’ll try this again, it’s kind of interesting…

  27. Lou Woodley says:

    Hi,
    Just to clarify, the email notifications are working for this blog and the trackbacks should also work for all the Nature Network blogs, but there was no trackback on the system from Christian here. Any more details on what you did would be very helpful to determine if there is actually a problem.
    Not sure what is happening with the delay in your comments appearing, steffi. I will see if we can reproduce it.

  28. Lou Woodley says:

    OK, Steffi, we’ve resolved what was happening with your comments not publishing instantly – this is now working as it should. Sorry for the inconvenience!

  29. steffi suhr says:

    Thanks Lou!

  30. steffi suhr says:

    I was starting to feel as if I was talking to myself.

  31. steffi suhr says:

    Not that I would do that.

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