Beyond the Pandemic, Libraries Look Toward a New Era

With a shift to online resources well underway, “the most trusted civic institutions” are in a good position to deal with the changing future.

By Ellen Rosen

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, Mr. 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 3-D 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.

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