25th Anniversary Series Blog 8

25th Anniversary Series Blog 8

Libraries of Tomorrow

The 21st-Century Public Library

Public libraries have always been at the heart of the communities they serve. They are the portal to a shared bank of accurate and reliable knowledge, and act as gateways in accessing information. Often the scrutiny of debate in recent years, their existence and relevance has been called into question as we find ourselves in a world ever evolving in how knowledge and information are accessed and disseminated. Despite strong challenges, public libraries have prevailed and are enjoying a resurgence in interest and membership, and are providing for their local community in ever increasing ways.

The 21st century marked a turning point in libraries, presenting major challenges yet considerable opportunities in public library service. The advent of new technology has transformed how we, personally and as a society, interact with and access information. Our reading and research practices have altered considerable, and at a rapid rate. However, innate to us as human beings and as a society, our need for a shared, community-centred space to both acquire information and connect with others is unlikely to change. As such, public libraries have embraced innovation and community, and have expanded their services to stay relevant and meet expectations of users in an age in which reliance of technology has all but become a staple in peoples’ lives.

The Hybrid Public Library

The changing face of public libraries in recent years has prompted debate to a degree that some question the necessity of even having a physical structure in which to house information. With access to information available on the go, every moment of every day, the very need for public libraries has been a hot topic. However, this reductionist view of library services stands as a weak argument against the actual reality of the role of libraries in regard to information.

Addressing this debate, public libraries have evolved into spaces where the physical and digital sit side by side. The regular visitor to the library, wishing to be met with a traditional service is equally as catered for as the individual requiring easy, fast and reliable access to the digital world. Thus, the public library of today can be considered a hybrid library – one catering to the past through archival material, the present day in all the myriad of ways in which knowledge is available, and to the future, ready to adapt and respond to the technological world in which we live.

The term hybrid library is one which has emerged in the past two decades, referring to libraries as the tangible place from which traditional, print-based materials are collected and available for public use, to the fully digital space serving as gateways to networked resources (1). Ireland’s contemporary network of 330 public libraries has adapted and altered itself to suit the expectations and requirements of its users.

How public libraries continue to develop will depend largely on how technology itself develops and how local communities inform the service. Libraries will be expected to evolve in unison with these communities and, much as they have in the past two decades, provide relevant and necessary services – along with a physical space for communities to converge.

Public Libraries & The Information Age

The considerations discussed above have dominated the world of public libraries in the past few decades and inform the queries as to what direction libraries of the future will take. But as both the differing means to gathering information remain popular, perhaps the argument at play in this debate is a matter of preference, which prompts focus on the root of the question – that of information itself.

A unique purpose of libraries is to collate information and to make it publicly available in all formats – print and electronic. Challenging this role is the world of communication technology and its explosive impact on the extent and immediacy of information available. This level of access not only allows people the means to receive information, anytime and anywhere, but also the ability to generate and disseminate it as well. The great strength of the technological world is its wide range of content, provided by an extensive gamut of providers, right at one’s fingertips. However, this could also be seen as its greatest weakness and poses a crucial question as to the quality, reliability and relevance of information.

This growing focus on standards in information reinforces the importance of the role of the professional librarian. Librarians are at the forefront of understanding information and research gathering. And just like the role of the public library growing and adapting to meet the needs of its communities, the role of the librarian has also evolved to understand and utilise new technologies to better assist and guide library users, but crucially, to constantly implement their knowledge when qualifying standards in information.

Public libraries are now hubs of technology and will transform and evolve as the technology itself does. As public libraries continue to evolve, the routes to information will progress in accordance to how society delves deeper into the digital age, but a guaranteed constant in the library service will be its commitment to quality, reliability and relevance of information.

Public Libraries – Changing Spaces

The objective of public libraries is to purposefully serve their local community’s needs, and as these needs shift and alter, so too do the goals of the library as they respond accordingly. With the ever-changing landscape of digital technology and the ease of access to information, the physical landscape of the public library is transforming to accommodate new services, whereby space is redefined in innovative and organic ways. What once visually read as a public library space – the dark and dusty room – is now gradually phased out to welcome spacious, bright and user-friendly forms, communicating the redesign of modern-day public library spaces where personal and communal zones are readily provided.

Today’s public libraries are no longer only repositories for books but are defined by the needs of a dynamically changing society. As gateways to information, education, recreation, opportunity and community, the design and utilisation of the public library spaces adapts and unfolds in response.

Increasingly libraries are acknowledging and replying to the communal needs of society, and as communities progressively turn to their public library to serve their needs, the library continues to reciprocate with new facilities and services. Community-focused spaces have entered into the common lexicon of library use in recent years, and as this trend progresses, more and more public libraries are adapting to house the expanding multiple new technologies in demand by the public. Furthermore, public libraries are recognising the need for citizens to feel connected and rooted within their local communities, prompting the need for creative, recreation and, quite simply, hang-out spaces. The public library is gradually growing into the local community hub, whereby public  needs are addressed easily and readily. Libraries are offering a sense of place. A sense of community.

One such trend which is transforming public libraries across the globe is the Makerspace movement. The Makerspace is a defined physical space within the public library design which is utilised as a communal creative space focusing on creativity (innovation, experimentation, and exploration), collaboration and sharing. It allows individuals gather to share knowledge and ideas, access equipment and guidance, and learn new skills, all within a mentor-led, informal learning environment. It addresses the innate needs of human beings to create, to make, and, ultimately, to connect. With regards to information, the maker movement encompasses all the principles of a public library, from being a hub of knowledge and life-long learning, to public libraries being custodians of information practicing information management and dissemination, to connecting people and information of all kinds. The one variant of the makerspace, which embodies this new trend, is how we are witnessing relationships with information evolve – those who access information are no longer solely consumers or providers, but information creators. The Makerspace allows the capacity to generate new information – participation with information is no longer a passive event but an active endeavour.

Thus, public libraries are all-inclusive in their response to society. They serve not just the prolific reader or dedicated researcher, but they are welcoming spaces to makers, families, entrepreneurs, community groups and much more. As the definition of public library services expands, their spaces modify and conform in response. Possibly libraries of the future will house multiple services not yet imagined, but for certain, the impetus to respond to community will be forever as the central core of the public library movement.

By Laura Flanagan, Fingal Libraries


Next Monday, August 26th: 25th Anniversary Event – Competition Winners

We hope you join us!


For your interest:

Fingal Libraries Local Studies and Archives is a repository of photographs and documents, private and donated collections, encapsulating visual and literary snapshots of Fingal and the Dublin area through history.

It is a treasure trove for anyone looking to unearth the rich culture and heritage that is the region of Fingal. Staff are exceptionally knowledgeable and always willing to help in your research.

Thanks to Catherine, Brian and Karen for allowing access to archives for this blog series.

Research material used in the blog series can be found through the Encore catalogue on Libraries Ireland website:

University of the People: celebrating Ireland’s public libraries: the Thomas Davis lectures 2002. An Chomhairle Leabharlanna. 2003 Call No. 027.4415

Public libraries in the 21st century : defining services and debating the future / Anne Goulding. 2006. Call No. 027.44

A history of literacy and libraries in Ireland : the long traced pedigree / Mary Casteleyn. 1984. Call No. 027.0415 Ireland

Irish Carnegie Libraries : A Catalogue and Architectural History / Grimes, Brendan. 1998. Call No. 027.4415

Dublin Libraries : A Pictorial Record / Lennon, Sean. 2001. Call No. 027.0418

Another invaluable resource during research included the Irish Newspaper Archive, available for use on public PCs at your local Fingal Library.

(1)    Oppenheim C., Smithson D. What is the Hybrid Library?. Journal of Information Science. 1999; 25(2): 97-112. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/016555159902500202 [Accessed 9th August 2019]