COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Diantha Dow Schull on Placemaking for Libraries

Jan 1, 2009
Dec 22, 2017

By Diantha Dow Schull, President, Americans for Libraries Council

Over the past decade and a half there has been a renaissance of library construction, with an especially large increase in the number and size of architecturally prominent new buildings or major renovations. Exciting new libraries anchor major urban redevelopment projects, branch libraries are cropping up in malls and subdivisions, and carefully remodeled landmark libraries dot the landscape from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. With 203 public library construction or renovation projects completed in 2004, and 185 in 2005, it is clear that there is a building boom unmatched since Andrew Carnegie partnered with municipalities to construct more than 2,500 new libraries in the English-speaking world at the turn of the 20th Century.

What does it mean to be a destination library? Who is the primary audience and how do members of the local community benefit?

Many of the new library buildings are designed by internationally recognized architects: Rem Koolhaas (Seattle); Moshe Safdie (Salt Lake City); Michael Graves (Denver); Robert Stern (Clearwater, Florida and Nashville, Tennessee); Cesar Pelli (Minneapolis) and Will Bruder (Phoenix). Most have dramatic exteriors of glass and steel, large public plazas, commissioned art work and special landscaping. Many library redevelopment projects retain the look and feel of the early twentieth century Carnegie buildings some of us remember, while introducing open plans, new computer infrastructure, space for public programs and amenities such as story gardens and coffee shops.

Whether new or updated, these library projects are hard to miss. In fact, they have become "destinations" in the same way that museums, renovated railroad stations, and new university buildings attract visitors eager to see the newest in architectural design.

The phenomenon of the destination library has helped to position libraries as vehicles for cultural tourism and economic development. Long neglected by planning authorities, libraries are now being included in downtown revitalization projects and other urban and suburban development plans. Evidence for their positive impacts on local and economic development has helped spawn a new literature on library ROI or "return on investment."

(For additional information on the emerging field of Library ROI studies, see ALC's upcoming report: Public Library Valuation: Assessment of an Emerging Field, available next month at


While the value of destination libraries in generating economic activity is now the subject of scholarly investigation, their importance as public places has yet to be rigorously explored. Economic factors represent only one kind of valuation; social and civic values certainly merit equal examination. For instance, the very concept of the destination library cries out for reconsideration. What does it mean to be a destination library? Who is the primary audience and how do members of the local community benefit? In addition, a methodology is needed to undertake systematic assessment of libraries' impact on their local communities from the perspective of Placemaking. Do new library spaces advance the sense of place within a particular neighborhood? If not, why not? Do they facilitate connections across cultures, generations and interest groups? Are they inviting for the newcomer as well as the traditional user? Do they intensify social and civic exchange and strengthen the ties between individuals and groups? Do they facilitate programs and partnerships, the essential ingredients for a culture of participation and collaboration?

Even in the absence of a systematic methodology, the evolution of today's libraries, including "destination libraries," reflects a growing consciousness on the part of library planners and community advisors regarding these institutions' value as public places. Some are quite conscious of their value as conveners and placemakers. Whether or not they use these terms, the end result is the same. As the examples in the accompanying article about model libraries show, libraries are moving beyond their traditional information and education functions to take leadership in developing places for civic, cultural and social exchange.

In libraries' evolution as community places, three inter-related developments appear to be the prime levers for change: (1) community-library partnerships and collaborations; (2) library programming; and (3) library-community co-location.

Community-Library Partnerships and Collaborations

Just as connections between individuals are essential for creating shared experience and common purpose, so, too, are connections between local organizations and institutions. In fact, the literature of community building emphasizes the importance of networks of civic and public institutions that understand the value of transcending their independent identities, locations and services, to develop new institutional arrangements for collaboration and community connections. This phenomenon suggests new options for the public in terms of how they access and share their local assets, how they invest their local dollars, and how they forge a new spirit of connection and collaboration.

As libraries become more connected with other local services, and vice versa, community ties are strengthened.

Today, more and more libraries are joining with local organizations to develop approaches for working together across institutional boundaries. Some have developed new arrangements that bring the library outside of its walls, to community centers, senior centers, YMCAs or shopping malls. Others libraries are integrating new functions into their facilities, such as museums, business development centers, centers for active older adults, performance spaces and after-school programs. As libraries become more connected with other local services, and vice versa, community ties are strengthened.

Community-Library Programming

Public programming is another way to advance libraries' role as placemakers. Interestingly, expanded programming appears to be in direct correlation with the evolution of libraries as gateways to information. The more that libraries offer access to information, whether remotely or on-site, the more people seem to desire programs that bring them together in physical spaces, offering opportunities to discuss issues and share experiences in real time. In fact, the "library" is less and less a space for the storage of books and other information artifacts, and becoming more a programmable space for sharing information, ideas and experience--some call it the 21st century "Agora."

There are various explanations for this phenomenon, including the notion that isolated online interactions do not satisfy people's needs for direct social connections. Another explanation is that as people are faced with a surfeit of information, they are seeking out opportunities to make sense of that information. Whatever the explanation, both new and renovated libraries clearly reflect the trend to allocate more space to activities than to information storage. From special spaces for one-to-one health information or job counseling services, to group study areas, auditoriums and community gardens, library design today reflects the need to convert spaces to active places.

The range of programs, of course, varies greatly. Some are library-generated programs, such as book clubs, lecture series or literary programs. More and more, however, libraries are building on their new relationships with community partners to undertake diverse activities ranging from fitness activities for teens (see for instance ALC's "Fit for Life" programming), to performances in the library by local symphonies or theater groups. Public affairs programming is increasing, with some libraries providing space for forums such as candidate debates and other community-wide planning discussions to address urgent local issues such as safety, literacy, workforce development, inter-cultural understanding and planning for transportation or open space. Whatever the type of program, the partner organization or the audience targeted, these programs are enlivening library spaces, fostering local exchange, and, in the process, creating community places.

Co-location of Libraries and Community Organizations

The third phenomenon driving library Placemaking is a trend towards co-location. For some years there have been examples of libraries co-located with elementary schools and even high schools. Lately, however, the phenomenon has grown in scope and in diversity. More and more libraries are sharing or planning shared facilities to optimize use of public dollars, expand access to public services and facilitate cooperative programming. The Children's Library of the Charlotte (NC) Public Library shares a building with a local children's theatre in a space called "ImaginOn" (see "Libraries That Matter" in this issue of Making Places). The Clark County Library in Las Vegas has created a series of branch facilities that include cultural functions such as museums and theaters. There are more and more examples of public libraries co-locating with community colleges and, in a few instances, universities. While some observers believe this trend is not always advantageous for public library users, it is clear that the trend is yet another aspect of the public library understanding itself as embedded in and responsible for community places.


While none of the trends discussed above alters the core purpose of the public library -- to foster democratic participation through access to information and ideas -- they are all directly relevant to libraries' future roles in community building and Placemaking. Together, they suggest the extent to which libraries are more than books, more than reading rooms, more than information. Through their digital connections, their community partnerships, and their public programs, libraries are converting their physical spaces into community places that enhance the civic sphere. Together, all these evolving aspects of the library suggest a radical restructuring of these institutions and their place in society, with the potential to redefine "the commons."


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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space