Back in Circulation: Austin’s Library of the Future

Like many kids,

Austin is deep in the throes of building our new Central Public Library as part of the Seaholm District Project.

my neighborhood public library was a hugely important part of my childhood – a place where I spent hours exploring the thousands of books available, losing myself in a world of adventure, mystery and fantasy. My love of reading never faded, but as I’ve aged and found other interests less easily accommodated within the walls of my local library, my trips have become less frequent.

But that’s just me.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, physical visits to the library increased by 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010. What’s more, a 2011 Harris Poll Quorum revealed that library patrons believe their usage of public libraries will remain steady or increase in the future.

To accommodate this continued interest, cities around the world are revitalizing their central libraries to turn the citizens’ opinions of the traditional library into something new and exciting. Austin, for example, is deep in the throes of building our new Central Public Library, aptly dubbed “The Library of the Future,” as part of the Seaholm District Project.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a renaissance in library redesign and construction.”
– JOHN GILLUM, AUSTIN LIBRARY FACILITIES PLANNER

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Austin library facilities planner John Gillum is helping to lead the charge on the city’s newest treat for lovers of the written word. For the last 35 years, Gillum has been planning Austin’s libraries; this will be his 18th, and likely, he predicts, the best one yet.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a renaissance in library redesign and construction,” he says.

According to Gillum, cities worldwide have realized the economic benefit of central libraries and have begun adding them to city plans to bring in a new crowd of visitors. “If you can do it right – make the library culturally significant and offer a lot within it – everyone within your area will want to visit it, and if you really do it right, people will come from miles around because it is a destination. A well planned public library can become part of your public image as a city: (as) an icon.”

Austin’s Library of the Future is set to open in November 2016, but first Gillum and his team – including the award-winning architectural firm Lake Flato – needed to understand what “Library of the Future” actually meant. “Our conclusion was that it was really hard to predict the future,” Gillum says. “We had to build a building that could be modified or adapted quickly when needs or the way people get their information changes.”

Key to this adaptability is the actual structure of the building. The floor will be raised six inches above the foundation to allow cabling to be easily snaked wherever it’s needed. What’s more, all the bookshelves will be placed on casters for easy manipulation of the space, allowing it to be transformed based on need.

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With public theaters… maker space… rooftop garden, and gallery space… the building may be a community catch-all.

But when it comes to the Library of the Future, that doesn’t even scratch the surface – in fact, the term “library” doesn’t quite do the plan justice. With public theaters, community meeting spaces, maker space, a cafe, a recycled bookstore, a rooftop garden, and gallery space complete with national and local exhibits, the building may in fact be less a library in the traditional sense and more a community catch-all. Each of these components serves as a reminder that libraries are no longer exclusively for checking out books; they’re a place for people to rub shoulders with others without the isolation of technological devices between them.

“The Library of the Future will play a big role as a community gathering space,” Gillum notes. “The librarians coined the phrase ‘education through conversation,’ and that seems to be exactly what is going on.”

This building is not going to be like any other building we’ve seen in Austin, and as one of only two Libraries of the Future in the world (the other is in Amsterdam), it certainly won’t resemble the libraries we’ve grown accustomed to. But library traditionalists, fear not: the building will still maintain a healthy collection of printed books – five hundred thousand, to be exact, which is two hundred thousand more than are currently in stock – along with a significant electronic collection.

“People seem to still love books, so we decided to truly celebrate that,”
– JOHN GILLUM, AUSTIN LIBRARY FACILITIES PLANNER

“People seem to still love books, so we decided to truly celebrate that,” Gillum says.

Among the new features, planners are also ensuring that the library supports Austin’s commitment to sustainability. Solar panels on the roof will produce one-third of the energy for the library, rainwater harvesting systems will utilize the occasional Austin storms, a cistern will hold water for irrigation, toilets and the like, and an incredible amount of natural light will lessen the need for electric lighting.

All in all, Austin’s Central Library seems to be a little bit of everything for everyone. “Somebody once told me that a central library has to be a cathedral for the mind, a hospital for the soul and a theme park for the imagination, and I completely understand what they mean,” Gillum says.

It’s a huge undertaking for everyone involved, but given the passion, time, and thought put into the project, there’s no doubt that Austin’s Central Library will surpass expectations as a central social hub and – dare we say it? – a library of the future.


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Images courtesy City of Austin and Lake | Flato

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