Libraries in the 21st Century - the next 20 years?

Sarah Godowski takes a look back at the evolution of library spaces and looks ahead to the future in a digital, post-pandemic world.

Bisset Adams

Looking back to the year 2000, the talk was of making libraries future-proofed for the 21st Century, and there was a sense of excitement about what that meant, although it was far from being defined. Tony Blair’s introduction of the ‘People’s Network’ in the mid-90s was still, and possibly is, the most revolutionary advance in public libraries, giving them a real relevance at a time when access to technology and the internet represented a genuine divide in society.

Initiatives for change

The ground-breaking Idea Store concept, still referenced as a transformational model bringing together libraries, information, adult learning and retail, was being developed by Tower Hamlets council, but the pilot site in Bow was still two years away from opening. The government initiative ‘Framework for the Future’ was not to be published until 2003. This was to recognise libraries’ role as threefold: providing community space and helping to tackle social exclusion; promoting reading and informal learning in all its forms; offering access to technology and the internet, including crucially e-government. It also referenced one of the challenges facing the library service - a lack of consistency in the quality of the service offered nationally. One of the key strengths of the library service is its local character, its autonomy and understanding of its own community’s needs, therefore any centralised initiatives for transformation are hard to implement, and any powerful brand messages to engage with new audiences tends to be local rather than national.

An extraordinary transformation

Now in 2021, we can see the transformation has been extraordinary; over the past two decades librarians embraced a new customer-facing role with enthusiasm, reinventing their role from the stern, finger-on-lips stereotype to a role encompassing aspects of a teacher, research assistant, social worker, events manager, community co-ordinator and in many cases a friend. Libraries now are often bright, exciting places, with cafes, exhibitions, informal lounge and social space, inspiring reading and creativity, accommodating research and study of all types, offering the welcoming spaces for events and activities which genuinely feel to be owned by the community. Even today however, this isn’t always the case, and local authority budgets have been decimated by a decade of ‘austerity’, with libraries bearing the brunt along with other services.

We may ask what’s next for the upcoming two decades, when from leftfield comes a global pandemic which is making us reassess how we live our lives together, what social space means, and how public spaces and services may need to change in the future.

Public libraries are first and foremost public spaces – one of the few left where communities can get together without pressure to buy anything, or indeed do anything other than browse or relax. During the public consultation on the new Southmere Library designed by Bisset Adams in Thamesmead, our team of architects met with readers of all ages, interests and needs with a keen interest in the library – from young people keen to be involved in the design to a retired women’s reading group who met monthly, enjoying the social aspects as much as the book discussion.

All such activities have ceased during the extraordinary year that 2020 proved to be, and libraries have had to rethink how to maintain their role as a focus for the community.

In the footsteps of retail

Over the past two decades, library services have reinvented themselves to engage with new readers and communities, often following the lead of retail, encouraging a sense of ownership and belonging, amongst individuals and communities who may have felt excluded and would not previously have used the library. The Idea Stores paved the way to consider the library ‘brand’ as a means to engage with users: using a comprehensive brand strategy which encompassed and communicated the library offer, staff role and behaviour, the message of library and learning as a means of empowerment, and a consistent customer experience in the design of the space.

Now libraries must again follow the lead of retail, building their brand in a virtual space, engaging through social media and other online channels with an ever-wider community to encourage take-up of all the services the library has to offer, from leisure reading to study and research. Throughout the pandemic, many libraries have shown a number of different initiatives to continue lending materials, from safe drop off points to quarantining returned books for a safe period of time. Warwickshire Libraries, for instance, have also offered ‘keep in touch’ calls for the vulnerable, Reading Friends via the telephone, online newspapers and ebooks and an online programme of events and activities including storytime, virtual clubs and reading groups via Facebook; during the pandemic in 2020, over 1200 new members joined the library service.

Building the library brand

The retail paradox is that a greater digital presence requires something different on the high street to attract footfall and brand loyalty; pre-Covid, weariness with an online existence put the focus on offering experiences, particularly to the millennial generations. Retailers such as Rapha, retailing cycling wear, have created a hub and café in Central London for like-minded enthusiasts, a buzzing space with movies, exhibits and coffee, offering a sense of membership and belonging which goes far beyond retailing sportswear. Other retailers such as Lululemon selling high-end yogawear, offer café, yoga classes, and social events to cement their customers’ brand loyalty.

Clearly, the success of an experiential approach to retail is now being challenged by habits of social distance; however in the long run innovative initiatives to create customer loyalty by offering real experiences will be the future, for both retailers and libraries.

As pandemic restrictions ease, libraries will regain their position as a community public space, with inevitably some more permanent alterations in the light of a heightened awareness of the threat of infection. A key lesson from retail will be to build on the strengthened online offer and brand: online shopping has received a huge boost during lockdown and some high street shops have struggled to adapt. Coming out of lockdown, and continuing a trend already in process, retailers will be providing more seamless virtual transactions, matched with a genuine customer experience in the physical store. Libraries need to ensure that customers feel connected via the online experience, but still visit the library for social, learning and creative experiences, from classroom groups to informal social meetings.

The key is to create a strong brand message to reach out to people both online and within the physical library – making members feel that they’re part of a high quality club, which helps them experience the best their local community has to offer.

Sarah Godowski
Director, Bisset Adams
March 2021