The first libraries consisted of archives containing some of the earliest forms of writing, dating as far back as 2600 BC. It is said that these early archives, which were largely records of commercial transactions, signify the transition from prehistory to the beginning of history.
Ever since, libraries have played an important role in preserving knowledge, culture, art, and technology, propelling civilisations forward with an unprecedented momentum. The library has long been considered the centre of information, revered by most since it contained fundamental knowledge, essential for the prosperity of humanity.
Indeed, throughout history the role of the library was to serve as a storehouse, an archive of manuscripts, art, and other important documents – a collection of sources of information, scientific, cultural, or otherwise. Today, libraries continue to be de ned as such. But why?
We have transitioned away from a time where information was scarce and precious to an era where the amount of digitised information is ever growing, readily available, and in many cases, free. As a result of this, libraries as we know them are fading into obsolescence.
Yet, with more commercialisation, freedom from ownership, urbanisation, and the pre-eminence of the DIY or ‘maker’ economies, libraries are undergoing a transformation with a renewed sense of vigour. The future of libraries has little to do with books.
At its core, the library is an information hub, providing access to necessary resources for reference and for learning through borrowing, lending, and sharing. This holds true in a future where libraries have become a centre for exchange, not only for knowledge in the conventional sense, but also for products and services.
Currently, there are several dozen ‘tool libraries’ operating around the world – collections of specialised tools that are loaned out to experienced and inexperienced community members interested in home repair, maintenance, landscaping, and other projects for a membership fee.
Likewise, there are a small handful of ‘kitchen libraries’ emerging in several cities across North America, lending out kitchen appliances to community members in need. The idea here is that small space living in urban environments and a modest income should not constitute barriers to cooking and healthy living.
Lastly, there are even fewer ‘music libraries’ or instrument lending libraries that allow community members to borrow instruments and learn to play them. To be clear, most new library programs offer learning and instruction as part of the membership.
While some initiatives are born out of commercial interests or operate as non-profit organisations, many are funded and supported by municipalities and integrated within the portfolio of offerings from conventional libraries.
Increasingly, urban populations in the Western world prefer ready access to assets rather than the unnecessary liability of ownership. This is likely to be reflected in how libraries are designed and managed in the coming decades.
The founders of the Toronto Tool Library in Canada (also owners of The Kitchen Library) believe that by providing access to otherwise costly and space-consuming appliances and tools, they are building a more shareable city for the future.
The library of the future will not only continue to play a role in preserving knowledge, culture, art, and technology, but will be central in facilitating interactions and exchanges of many more things in an open, accessible, participatory, and sustainable way.
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