I’ve just been looking at pictures of Worcestershire’s award winning, £60 million library and history centre, The Hive.  They show a lot about some of the trends happening today.
The first of these is co-location, where the library shares a building with another body. The Hive is the first UK example of a fully integrated building shared between a public library (Worcestershire County Council) and higher education (University of Worcester).  A university is of course an especially grand example.  Other cases include obvious partnerships like one stop shops with other council services.  More odd examples include  florists, pharmacies and even the Co-op.  Co-location has big benefits for both parties: the costs of the building are shared (perhaps a third of total annual costs) and both party benefits from footfall generated by the other.
The benefits of co-location (picture courtesy of Demco)
There’s another trend in new public libraries exemplified by the big spaces and big paintings in the pictures. This is grandeur.  Seemingly completely at odds with the austerity of current times, there are a few reasons for this but I will include only an official one and a less official one.  The official one is that big in-your-face libraries like The Hive are, excuse the pun, honeypots for attracting people into an area.  Put simply, people want to live near big libraries and they thus boost housing prices and other things.  The unofficial one is that almost all of these projects started before the recessions.  The great new library still being completed at Birmingham, the wonderful Canada Water Library and the major refurbishments at Liverpool and Manchester would never have got off the ground now.  Ed Vaizey will still claim the credit for them but they are nothing to do him.  They are the reminders of happier days.
“reminders of happier days”
There’s a down side of even this, though.  With 27% cuts already announced to councils and a further 20% rumoured to come, these wonderful new buildings run the risk of being big white elephants at the worst and the constant number-one claim to library cash.  This is not wonderful for people without easy access to them, as Brent has found out.  It also precisely those people who need libraries most that will find it hardest to afford the bus fares, or time, to get to the swanky figurehead library two bus journeys away.
Dressed to impress (picture courtesy of Demco)
There’s another big trend being shown as well.  This is libraries as meeting places.  Quite rightly, it is acknowledged that public libraries play a highly important role in being welcoming neutral spaces in the heart of the town or, in smaller branches, at the heart of their communities.  This has been common knowledge for librarians for quite a while but the public, and policy-makers, have finally woken up to the death of “shhhh”.  In the better, bigger, branches, there will still be quiet study areas but libraries are no longer, for good or ill, being seen as silent sanctuaries.
Sit down, have a chat. (picture courtesy of Demco)
Then, finally, there’s the big trend that authorities are careful not to boast about.  These places often have less books.  There are very good reasons for this.  In the age of online resources, there’s less of a need for massive archives.  New libraries also represent a great time to get rid of old stock as Manchester has, controversially, shown.  Also, if libraries are going to be community meeting spaces and figureheads for communities, there’s less space and less priority on that thing which made libraries necessary in the first place.  This can be seen as good or bad, depending on one’s view.
“great to see some thriving is still going on”
There’s doubtless another trend that the Hive shows as well.  I bet it has more computers than its ancestors.  This ties in with contemporary trends but … I wonder.  I’m guessing that with the increasing use of smartphones, it will be less necessary for banks and banks of computers.  Like the  dependence on tubchairs, rows of PCs may perhaps be seen as a relic of older days in the not too distant future.  Wifi, which is of course hard to show in these photographs, is most definitely as well a trend notable in public libraries, although less than it should be due to the lack of money for its installation.
So we see that new libraries are still being built but it’s clear that they are changing with the times.  These changes will be welcomed by some and less welcomed by others but it is at least great to see that some thriving is still going on.  But it is going on despite of, and not because of, current national policies.