Of all the institutions that became vulnerable with the evolution of digital technology, libraries are one of the most obvious. These were places you could go to find information, whether you wanted to build a flower bed or learn about prehistoric cave drawings. They were community hubs and learning centres, where people of all backgrounds could gather in the spirit of knowledge. They were important, built around a specific commodity: the paper book.
These days, if you want to learn how to build a flower bed, there are endless instructional videos on YouTube. If cave paintings have piqued your interest, you can stream a sleek documentary. Going to a physical library in search of books may have a certain charm, but it can also feel like a slow way to find outdated information. A lot of people see public libraries as antiquated institutions that are quickly being eroded by the internet, digital reading, and ultra-convenient supply chains for paper books – in a word, modernity.
But libraries have shown resilience. Statistics from National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA) show that public spending on libraries increased nearly 20% between 2012 and 2017 with robust monthly visits and book loans. Meanwhile, The New York Times ran a piece in August of 2019 showcasing some of the world’s newest and most vibrant public libraries – and it gives the impression that libraries are anything but a dying breed.
In these new designs, labyrinths of dusty books have given way to bright communal work spaces, creative galleries, play areas for children, leafy verandas, and even rooftop gardens. Does any of this sound familiar, from a hotelier’s perspective? Amenities and spatial designs are changing as libraries redefine themselves in a changing world. This can serve as a valuable inspiration to hotels that might be in need of a little redefining of their own.
Visually stunning, inside and out
To rebrand libraries as cultural centrepieces and architectural landmarks makes a certain degree of sense in world of increasing tourism and cultural exchange. The new Deichman library in Oslo (set to open in 2020 with a reported price tag of AUD $575m) is a stunning piece of waterfront modernism. It is, in the words of a New York Times article, a library “designed to see and be seen.”
Calgary’s new Central Library is a 23,000 sqm venue with a unique hexagonal façade and a train running directly through the ground-level of the building. The sprawling multi-purpose interiors are dominated by calm wood tones and an abundance of seating – the scope and ambition of the new library has been mentioned in conjunction with the city’s anticipated bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
Amenities you can’t get at home
The aforementioned Deichman library has books, yes – but it also has a movie theatre, video gaming zones, media workshops, lounges, and a restaurant. Do these sound like library amenities to you? Not unless you reinvent the concept of the library, which is exactly what many of these venues are trying to do.
Helsinki’s new library, the Oodi, dedicates only one third of its space to books; everything else is shared space for interacting and creating things. There is a workshop with everything from sewing machines to laser cutters, places to play the drums, and allocated spaces for pop-up entrepreneurs.
The trend of reimagining libraries as sprawling urban jewels and creative media centres is not without criticism, as demonstrated by this blog on TechCrunch. Its author argues that people are more afraid to lose the idea of the library than the reality of it – and thus are willing to shift and modernise that idea until it becomes unrecognisable. And according to a recent furniture salesperson I encountered, bookcases are becoming less popular as customers move away from books.
What a load of rubbish!
Contrary to popular belief, libraries were not always for books; their forerunners were originally used for storing clay tablets, or for storing archives or records that were deemed important to preserve. They were seen as places of learning in a variety of forms which could be accessed by private citizens or the general public. When printed books became more popular of course the Latin word related to books was used. The latest iterations are really just a reinterpretation and modernisation of the original intent.
So, what does this mean for hotels?
The hotel industry started off as a means of sharing hospitality with travelling strangers, as a means to both protect and control those on the road. Now? It has moved to become the centre of a community, or a place to gather strangers or a place for romance. Originally it was a place to provide average wine, ale, bread and a room and now it is a place from which to experience the local culture, to co-work or to eat great food and fine drink. Surely then we can see the parallel with libraries?
Ours is an industry where trends come fast and furious – and often disappear just as swiftly. How do we balance the push for innovation with the need for consistency? At what point does innovation turn into a game of diminishing returns and lost identities?
I think the above-mentioned libraries provides us with great examples of how to remain true to our origins whilst still changing with the times. Hotels can’t afford to stay still; they must refresh and re-evaluate – but never forget their roots.
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