The Future of Public Libraries: Emerging Trends

Written by Natalie Gilbert

Gone are the days when libraries existed solely for the purpose of borrowing books or offering a quiet place to study. Much like other educational spaces, public libraries are evolving and changing the traditional view of how a library should look and sound. In fact, many libraries have tossed out what used to be their cardinal rule: silence. This has been traded in for more collaborative learning environments and makerspaces, innovative physical designs and seating arrangements, and the availability of accessible, emerging technologies.

We surveyed the library landscape to show you a sampling of trends and innovations that are popping up in public libraries around the globe.

1. Makerspaces

A makerspace is essentially a collaborative workspace where people gather to make, learn, tinker and explore. Makerspaces can be as simple or as advanced as your budget and comfort level allow. For example, you can provide recycled materials, such as cardboard or old electronics, for patrons to build and create new objects, or go as far as offering tools and technologies like 3D printers, sewing machines, robotics, or laser cutters.  

maxresdefault3D Printing at the Edmonton Public Library

This is one of the trends in public libraries that breaks the tradition of quiet. Makerspaces are anything but quiet or orderly: they are loud with people collaborating, tinkering, and using equipment and tools.

If you are looking to implement a makerspace in your library, here are some suggestions for success:

  • Allow the space to be informal and community-driven, rather than enforcing structured, formal learning that is directed by library staff.
  • Designate a specific space for making. This will allow the noise to be contained to one area of the library, and for other areas to be designated as quieter zones.
  • On a shoestring budget? Look for grants to help bring in new technologies (3D printers, software, electronics, etc.).
  • Dedicate different times for your specific audiences. For example, an after school ‘Teen Creation Hour’ would encourage teen patrons to engage in library activities and develop their making skills.

Edmonton Public Library | Alberta, Canada
This library offers 3D printers, sound booths and a green screen, along with specialized makerspace programs like digital media exploration, the basics of Photoshop and Lego Robotics.

Westport Library | Connecticut, United States
This innovative library offers a Maker-in-Residence program, where monthly residents hold regular workshops on their topic of speciality. The library also hosts Maker Faires, and offers appointments with 3D printing coaches to train patrons on how to use one of their four 3D printers.

Frysklab [FabLab] | Friesland, Netherlands
The FabLab is Europe’s first mobile makerspace in a converted library bus. Its vision is to bring making and 21st century skills to primary and secondary students.

Innisfil Library: Lakeshore Branch | Ontario, Canada
This branch has a ‘Hacker Lab’ that offers access to 3D printing, vinyl cutting, soldering, and electronics like the Raspberry Pi. The library updates a blog about their various programs and initiatives.

The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County | Ohio, United States
This library has 3D printers, audio and visual equipment, laser cutters and engravers, sewing machines, cameras and other hardware and software tools that patrons can use for free to create pretty much anything they can imagine.

2. Digital Creation Labs

Another trend is the creation of media labs that allow patrons to engage in active learning, experience new media and information formats, and collaborate in technology-rich spaces. Digital media labs also play an important role in educating citizens about software and hardware, which could help them build skills to find jobs in our increasingly technology-driven world. Many libraries, like the Louisville Free Public Library in Kentucky or the City of Virginia Beach Joint-Use Library in Virginia, offer coding classes and online courses designed to help patrons learn valuable computer skills.  

Chicago Public Library | Illinois, United States
Their YOUmedia lab was launched in 2009 and offers teenagers free access to graphic design tools, photography, video, music, 2D/3D design, STEM and hands-on projects.

Fayetteville Free Library | New York, United States
This creation lab offers both Mac and PC computers, with a green screen wall, video cameras, podcasting equipment, and editing software.

Stokie Public Library | Illinois, United States
This library offers age-appropriate media labs for adults, teenagers, and younger children, including video and photo editing tools, cameras, microphones, and even a guitar and drum set.

3. Flexible Design and Seating

New trends in library design focus on modular furniture, mobile shelving and bright color palettes. Modular seating and mobile shelves can be easily rearranged, allowing for greater flexibility in setting up new spaces, creating divisions between areas, and regularly refreshing the look and feel of the library. Seating options have also evolved from upright, wooden chairs to more comfortable options, like cushions, couches and bean bag chairs. Brighter colors are used to be more appealing to patrons, and to give off a fun, playful vibe.

Screenshot 2016-07-22 16.11.52Richland Library, Columbia, South Carolina

NY-DB830_NYLIBR_P_20140629185337New York Public Library’s Hamilton Grange branch in Harlem

Katoomba_151Katoomba Library in New South Wales, Australia

4. Multiuse Spaces and Services


Other spaces have expanded the traditional definition of what a library is, and the role it plays in educating and assisting its community. Beyond book borrowing and after school programs, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Library and Learning Center in Little Rock, Arkansas offers a teaching kitchen, greenhouse, vegetable garden, arboretum and a performance space.

img_0343The San Giorgio Library in Pistoia, Italy, features a large exhibition area, auditorium, café and two cinema halls integrated into the building, as well as a makerspace and computer media suite. There are over 800 free events offered each year by the library, which are planned and run by library staff and volunteers. These events include exhibitions, workshops, and courses that teach about safe social media use, basic word processing, computer coding and 3D design.

0311SM-THINGS__4065-pThe Sacramento Public Library in California has a new initiative called the Library of Things that allows patrons to check out items other than books. Their offerings include video games, sewing machines, musical instruments, board games, crafting equipment, and technology like a projector and GoPro camera. Other Library of Things are starting to pop up in other cities, including this brand new location in London, UK.

5. Emerging Technologies


Public libraries are beginning to house emerging technologies that can help patrons learn new skills or provide a service that is normally inaccessible to the general public. In addition to technology provided in makerspaces, like 3D printers, there is now equipment like the Espresso Book Machine at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library’s Central branch. This machine self-publishes books at a low cost, so patrons can print and bind anything from personal memoirs to family cookbooks, or they can choose from eight million books in the public domain.

Libraries are continuing to evolve and shift their visions, expanding their services and offerings to their local communities. While they still provide books and spaces to study or work, it’s a great idea to check out your local library if you are looking for access to emerging technologies or to build new skills.

About the author

Natalie Gilbert

Natalie has spent the last five years working in both traditional and experiential education settings in Haiti, India, and South Korea. Her background is in journalism and education, and she is currently pursuing her M.A. in Educational Technology. She enjoys running, exploring new neighborhoods, and cooking.

Leave a Comment