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Library Passport: Inside the World’s Most Futuristic Libraries

Tianjin Binhai Library

In the monthly feature, Library Passport, I Love Libraries satisfies its never-ending wanderlust by highlighting exceptional libraries from around the world. Grab your passport and join us!

Some of the world’s most beautiful buildings are libraries. It’s a truism that has spanned history, from the Great Library of Alexandria in the ancient world (and its modern-day iteration, Bibliotheca Alexandrina) and the Old Library of Trinity College Dublin (finished in 1732) to the Old Main Library of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (sadly demolished in 1955) and the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library (opened in 1911). And on and on and on. These buildings were constructed to address practical concerns—material storage, research capabilities, staff and patron accessibility, etc.—but they served another purpose: to inspire and reflect the wonders and possibilities found at the library.

Book Mountain
Book Mountain. Photo: Ethen Rera, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

That same ethos is found in today’s libraries but with sights on the future. Contemporary libraries are designed to accommodate the same features as their predecessors, while also making space for things that reflect the library’s place as a community gathering and learning spot—computer terminals, cafes and kitchens, makerspaces, audio and video production studios, teen and kid areas, virtual reality zones, gardens, and more. And they do it all with style and flair.

Architectural Digest recently published a story detailing 15 of the most futuristic libraries in the world, and we’ve become obsessed with it. Quite a few of the selections are in the United States—Seattle Public Library; Austin (Texas) Public Library; James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University in Raleigh; the Arabian Library in Scottsdale, Arizona; the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago; Seattle Central Library—but the majority are abroad. They’re all breathtaking shrines to the power of learning, collaboration, and community. And books, of course.

At Tianjin Binhai Library in Tianjin, China, Starfield Library in Seoul, South Korea, and Book Mountain in Spijkenisse, the Netherlands, books tower for stories above visitors, creating the illusion of perpetual reading materials reaching into the heavens.

It’s no surprise that the featured libraries are all stunning to look at, but the ways in which their forms follow function are extraordinary.

Containing more than a million books from Doha’s National Library, Public Library, and University Library, Qatar National Library’s collections are best perused via a people mover, a cross between an elevator and an escalator, that moves through the building. The design of the Central Library in Calgary was inspired by Chinook cloud formations. Inside the library, “sustainably sourced western red cedar interiors juxtapose a digital learning lab with gaming and podcasting programs.”

The Philological Library.
The Philological Library. Photo: Thomas Guignard, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED.

Highlighting local art is a factor in several libraries. At the Black Diamond, an extension of the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, Denmark, art is displayed throughout the space and a sound art performance occurs every day in the central atrium. The music was composed by Danish composer Jens Vilhelm Pedersen, who wrote 52 pieces of music—one for each week of the year—inspired by pieces in the library’s collection.

In addition to having design wow-factor, some of the libraries look to the future in terms of sustainability.

The Philological Library at the Free University of Berlin, dubbed "The Brain," has a “naturally ventilated, bubble-like enclosure consists of three parts. The external shell features aluminum and glazed panels that regulate the internal temperature. The supporting steel frame, formed from radial geometries, separates the inner and outer layers. And lastly, a translucent inner membrane filters daylight, allowing just the right amount of ambient light to shine through and create a perfect studying environment.”

These stunning examples of the future of libraries have us dusting off our passports and starting on some vacation plans. Those of us in the States don't have to travel too far to experience incredible examples of library architecture and design, however. American Libraries' annual Library Design Showcase spotlights some of the best new and renovated libraries found in the U.S. and Canada each year. It's always a fascinating, inspiring read. The latest showcase appeared in their September/October 2023 issue. Check it out!

If you’d like to learn more about libraries from around the world, look no further than the American Library Association’s (ALA) International Relations Office. The office’s mission is to increase ALA’s presence in the global library community and promote a greater understanding of international librarianship and international library issues, among other things. The office does a lot of cool stuff, like the Sister Library program, which helps U.S. libraries set up partnerships with libraries abroad. Pay them a visit!

Feature photo: Tianjin Binhai Library by CNHowey, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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