This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Many companies and public institutions were unprepared for the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. There was one notable, perhaps even surprising, exception: the nation’s public libraries.
For more than a decade, these seemingly traditional institutions had been investing in a range of technologies and media. Libraries now balance two stacks: the physical with the so-called digital full stack.
With a wealth of electronic books, streaming platforms and of course Zoom, many were ready, with some adjustments, to provide services for their communities. But no one could have predicted that 2020 would create the moment when “our libraries, the most trusted civic institutions in the country, would become totally virtual,” said Anthony Marx, the president and chief executive of the New York Public Library, the nation’s largest library system after the Library of Congress.
But will virtual offerings eclipse physical locations?
Librarians across the country foresee institutions that will blend the physical with the digital, increasing their emphasis on their critical community role by offering free Wi-Fi and social services as well as a place where physical books and DVDs coexist with e-books and online platforms.
For example, the Midtown branch of the New York Public Library, the largest in the system, is waiting to reopen after a total overhaul. Renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, the location will now include classroom space and an entire floor dedicated to adult learning, such as teaching English and technology, Marx said.
The reimagined branch also has programming areas, a rooftop terrace designed for events, quiet spaces for patrons and sound studios for recording podcasts.
Other cities have similar plans, which often also include maker spaces for artisans, “which have grown like crazy,” said Anthony Harris, an architect with the design firm Gensler. Wish lists now often include 3D printers and additional mobile hot spot devices that can be checked out to provide Wi-Fi at home for the many Americans who still lack broadband.
“All of our goals will be just as important after we’re past this period as they were when we were planning. We will need these spaces,” said Michelle Jeske, the executive director of the Denver Public Library and the current president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. The pandemic-induced recession could prompt greater need for physical locations, she added, as people come in for help with job searches or filing for unemployment benefits.
Although renovations already factored in technological advances, in a few instances, some tinkering was in order.
Before the pandemic, the big information and circulation desks that were often a fixture in library design had fallen out of favor, Jo Giudice, the director of the Dallas Public Library, said.
“We instead started using mobile desks that we could move around the floor,” she said. “But these are open on all four sides and we want to keep our staff safe. So now we’re moving these desks back to a wall because we don’t want people standing shoulder to shoulder.”
Giudice added that the library is also forgoing the communal tables that had become ubiquitous in office design across many industries.
“We were going to use larger tables that were hard-wired, but we’re instead going to have smaller public tables that seat one or two people that will have access to outlets, but not hard-wired, so we can move the tables,” she said. Smaller tables not only reflect coronavirus concerns, but also afford more flexibility for the use of the room.