As we become increasingly reliant on digital content available on-demand, what happens to our repositories for printed matter? The answer may be simpler than you think: Libraries aren’t just about books any more. Most have shifted focus from their collections to the communities they serve, and adjusted their design to match.

Library-sponsored programs, such as children’s reading hours and job-search assistance sessions, are bolstering each location’s outreach and education efforts. A 2016 library use study from the Pew Research Center indicates an increase in the number of people visiting libraries for educational purposes: 27 percent of library users said they’d attended classes, programs, or lectures at their local institutions, a 10 percent increase over 2015.

A major part of the library's recalibration as civic anchor comes in the form of reconfigured spaces. In the nation’s capital, as elsewhere, library systems have been improving their physical structures over the last decade to accommodate shifts in usage. Marquee projects by renowned architects have reinvigorated the Washington, DC, Public Library (DCPL) properties, with 15 completed remodels (two of which were designed by the dynamic pairing of Adjaye Associates and the Freelon Group, of National Museum of African American History & Culture fame). Six more facility upgrades are currently on the boards, including a $208 million renovation and addition to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown DC.

The breadth of events a modern library can host relies upon the physical spaces within each building; community input allows architects to determine a building’s optimal layout to accommodate a wide variety of programs. An architectural team comprised of Martinez + Johnson Architecture and Mecanoo will modernize Mies van der Rohe’s MLK Memorial Library, aiming to improve overall transparency and visibility while adding amenities such as a ground-level café and a roof terrace event space.

Following more than 60 meetings with library users, library staff, and various other city stakeholders, the architects chose to incorporate spaces for music production and fabrication—including 3D printing and other digital technologies—as part of the modernization effort, which is set to finish in 2020. The end goal, according to DCPL, is to position the library as an engine for social improvement as opposed to simply being a place to pick up or drop off a book. Of course, there will still be librarians there to assist with those transactions as well.

Modern libraries will remain home to large holdings of printed matter, and their collections have already expanded to include e-reader versions of popular titles, music, and video on a variety of media. But the latest design improvements to libraries make them not only enjoyable venues for reading but also welcoming places to build community through continued educational opportunities.

About the author: Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.

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