By Eric Pelletier
At a time when we are all experiencing unprecedented technological changes in our lives—and when we have devices that put a world of knowledge and entertainment at our fingertips—we are bound to question the future of the library as we know it today.
Some might think that the advent of virtual spaces where we can socialize in a world created from scratch sounds the death knell for the physical library, but that is certainly not the case. Although libraries have undergone significant changes in the last twenty years, their importance in the future is not proscribed. As places of exchange, encounter, learning and discovery, they will be more necessary and relevant than ever in our communities, and this is especially true in the context of our post-pandemic reality.
A period of transition marked by many challenges
Gradually, the library has metamorphosed into an open, democratic, plural place. Having had the opportunity during my career to witness this transformation, I am more aware than ever of the magnitude of the task at hand with each new project. Building a library is not easy. It is an exercise that requires us to think deeply about the role of architecture and the connection of a place to its community; it requires us to be sensitive to the different contexts in which the library will act as an urban catalyst. We must ensure that libraries transcend their primary function to become vehicles of collective animation and, to do this, we must ensure that everyone feels comfortable in them.
The world of culture and information has never been so accessible, and the library is a testament to our societal evolution in the face of this paradigm shift. It remains the public place by excellence, a gateway to our culture and often the focal point of our communities. For young and old from all walks of life, it is still a space for gathering and exchange, for interaction and discovery. This is the beauty and universality of this place, but also its complexity. In our communities, libraries have in some ways replaced the church square. This requires from those who are called upon to design them a profound look at the meaning they can convey, but even more so a great sensitivity to those who will use them.
Challenges to what libraries can be in the future
As each new cultural project provides an opportunity to push the boundaries of the model a little further—to think about the mechanisms of community ownership, access and animation—we also need to think about redefining the role of libraries. These “third places”, a concept developed by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, have become human-centered spaces of interaction. Over the past thirty years, the model of the traditional library, halfway between a storage facility and a reading space, has evolved rapidly.
From the neighborhood library to the central library to the school library, they have adapted to this new vision of the third place. They are more accessible than ever, resolutely focused on their users. “The book will kill the building,” predicted Victor Hugo. Today, however, books still need a physical place charged with meaning to exist, despite the omnipresence of digital technology. When the Charlesbourg Library was built in 2006, I remember that we had to anticipate the growth of the collections, just as we had done with the Quebec National Library six years earlier. However, seven years later, at the Du Boisé Library, the growth rate had stabilized. The renovation of some libraries now leads us to reflect on the decrease in the number of documents, a true indicator of the constant change that our libraries face.
The libraries of today
Despite the rapid advances of digital technology—which many feared would spell the end of the library and the book as we know them—libraries are called upon to play an essential role in understanding our new world.
Libraries are no longer simply places of storage: they are also places of creation and information processing. Over time, they have become more open to accommodate a growing number of new users and to take on new meanings. They now allow community members to share and learn from each other, connect with other institutions, and enjoy spaces that foster creativity and innovation. Some now include gathering and social spaces, such as cafes, as well as broadcast spaces, digital collaborative workshops (Fab Labs), or integrated gardens. With this expanded range of activities, librarians must take on new roles, which in addition to handling archives and collections management, now also provide day-to-day management of these new spaces.
The librairies of tomorrow
Over the past two years, the boundary between the first place (where we live) and the second place (where we work) has blurred dramatically. There is every reason to believe that the third place will also undergo further transformations, again in response to the new realities of our time. The library will be more than ever a hub for socialization, learning and engagement. With this in mind, the design of libraries will need to support and encourage their use by shaping their spaces and strengthening their connections to the community.
Whether through the construction of new libraries or the renovation and redesign of existing ones, we have learned that these spaces can mean much more to us than we previously thought. If the Grande Bibliothèque remains the “mother house”, others have come to complete the offer by getting closer to their respective communities. From the Montmagny Library in the heart of the city to the Boisé Library on an urban boulevard, our achievements have created tangible links with the people who give them life. The next ones will certainly ask us to look at the future that is on the horizon, and perhaps even to compete with the libraries of the metaverse… Whatever the case, one fact remains: our work will always be marked by sensitivity and a desire to make them tangible, designed for users; places of convergence, exchange and dissemination.
Throughout a career spanning more than 30 years, Eric Pelletier has completed a wide variety of sensitive and poetic projects, all with one thing in common: an approach focused on placemaking and the user experience. His ability to adapt to change and his recognized creativity make him a responsive, inclusive and inspiring designer. During his career as a Senior Designer and Project Director, Eric has developed an expertise in cultural and institutional projects. Responsible for several distinctive mandates, he advocates a measured, careful and supportive architecture.