Designing Libraries for the 21st Century

ACRL announces the publication of Designing Libraries for the 21st Century, edited by H. Thomas Hickerson, Joan K. Lippincott, and Leonora Crema. Featuring an impressive array of authors drawn largely from the conference of the same name and packed with full color images and illustrations, this book provides guidance, principles, and a wealth of creative ideas for academic library spaces, technology, programs, and partnerships.

Learn more about Designing Libraries for the 21st Century in this Introduction from the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.


Designing libraries for the 21st century encompasses many aspects, ranging from conceptualizing a compelling, aesthetically pleasing, and sustainable structure with a striking and functional interior to developing staff positions and expertise that will be commensurate with the capabilities of the facility when it opens. A technology infrastructure that will allow the building to change with a rapidly evolving technical environment and programming spaces to enhance the research and learning mission of the university are also key elements of the 21st-century library. Envisioning ways to highlight the library’s print and digital collections and identifying strategies to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in the library will be integral to the success of the project for its constituencies. Often major building projects focus almost entirely on the physical facility, but in this volume, we make the case for looking at a building project in a more holistic fashion.

For the past two decades or more, we have seen a transformational shift in the design of college and research libraries, moving away from buildings designed primarily to house collections of books and journals. While many library expansions were still driven by the need for added stack space well into the 21st century, the increasing urgency to develop new learning spaces, incorporating new technologies and collaborative spaces for students, led libraries to change. Visionary librarians, planners, and university leaders began thinking about library buildings in new ways, centered more on people than on collections. The need for openness to let in natural light, rather than windowless spaces for protecting books, and flexibility to accommodate rapidly changing technologies were widely recognized. This book provides guidance, principles, good practice, and typical processes for designing contemporary libraries. We intend for it to be both practical and inspirational.

The dramatic changes in the conceptualization of library buildings in the past 20 years have been driven by changes in the core functions of universities and colleges. In research, all disciplines rely on digital tools and content. In teaching and learning, technologies have been incorporated into pedagogy, and the active and social aspects of learning have been increasingly emphasized. In many institutions, there is a renewed emphasis on inclusion and community engagement. Today, all new buildings and renovations seek to address these and other developments and are designed with the expectation of continuous and rapid change. The flexible, permeable spaces developed in contemporary libraries have enabled libraries to pivot and adjust to conditions as they have developed, notably during the many months of the coronavirus pandemic.

In this volume, we seek to explore major trends and identify promising strategies to prepare libraries for the future. An impressive array of authors, largely drawn from past presenters at the Designing Libraries for the 21st Century Conferences, will provide their big-picture perspectives and practical advice.

We begin with a selection of chapters that provide context for the trends in contemporary libraries, which reflect developments in scholarship, research, and learning—core elements of the academic enterprise—along with emphasis on community and inclusion. We then present several chapters that provide insight into how major projects seek to align their vision with institutional mission and priorities. Next, we highlight different perspectives, including those of library leaders, campus planners, and architects, on the architectural aspects of buildings and the planning process, including how to ensure effective communication among these groups. A section on key planning elements offers ideas for incorporating collections, technologies, responsive user services, and accessible design in contemporary libraries. Next, several well-developed partnerships are described, illuminating the opportunities and challenges of such relationships as well as the process used at several institutions to achieve collaborations. The convergence of a variety of cultural heritage organizations, including libraries, museums, and archives, is also explored. In the following section, we have the views of some leaders who have practical experience with change management. New library spaces require robust organizational capacity to realize their fullest potential. This includes ensuring that staff are supported and equipped to implement changes in operations and programs. Development of new types of expertise in staff is a critical element in the realization of the potential of 21st-century libraries. Finally, exemplary programs for a wide variety of library users, which take full advantage of the affordances of new or renovated facilities and help to realize an inclusive environment, are presented. Planning with synergy between users, programs, services, technologies, and new developments in research, teaching, and learning should provide a foundation for the 21st-century library. This section highlights a variety of innovative programs and services for students, faculty, staff, and the broader community.

Our book focuses primarily on academic libraries in North America, although we also include chapters on the Calgary Public Library and the National Library of Qatar, two projects with exceptional physical facilities and outstanding programming for their user communities. Academic libraries can learn much from facilities outside academia.

Our intention is for this book to serve a broad audience of individuals and teams who are involved in a planning process for a significant renovation, expansion, or new build of a library facility. Many of our authors have been very candid about what they would do differently in hindsight or how they have made needed changes in their facility after the building was opened. We anticipate that an entire institutional planning group will use this book as background for their work and as the basis for discussions on each aspect of their project. We also suggest that librarians might use particular chapters with faculty and institutional leaders to assist in their understanding of contemporary libraries or to expose them to trends in specific aspects of a project, such as digital collections and new technologies. The book can also be a valuable tool for those working on fundraising and communications, assisting with crafting messages about what 21st-century libraries are and can be. In addition, we hope the book will be used by library and information science students who are taking academic library classes to help prepare them for their professional roles.

It is clear that during the many months of the pandemic, students greatly missed opportunities for collaborative learning, access to technologies that they do not own themselves, and opportunities to feel part of a community. Lack of physical access to institutional libraries during the pandemic led to real losses in learning and in research productivity for many students and faculty. Twenty-first-century libraries are designed to foster active learning and research supported by digital tools and staff expertise, and we believe that there will be a renewed appreciation for “library as place.” Our intention is for this book to assist campuses in developing a robust planning process through its emphasis on pragmatic models informed by important trends in higher education, learning, research, and design.