Winston Churchill Fellow, Dr. Gemma John, explores the ways in which public libraries are evolving for the information age.

The research

Public libraries around the world face an uncertain future.  Their customers can now access information online, at a click of a button, leading to declining visitor numbers, and throwing into question their value as a physical space.

Yet, public libraries are evolving to become places for ‘connection not the collection’.  They are being reimagined as places where people can be together, a natural point in the city to gather, and exchange information.  As the architects for the new Aarhus DOKK1 explains, the library is ‘a place where the life of the city unfolds’.  Designers are playing a key role in their transformation from a warehouse for books into a gathering space for people.    

As part of the Winston Churchill Fellowship Programme, Gemma John’s Fellowship investigated how design is being used as a tool to enhance the experience of customers and change the behaviour of staff in public libraries in twelve locations across four countries in two international contexts.  

She visited the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark to find out how public libraries are being refurbished, renovated, and constructed to support the needs of staff and customers.  In the USA and Canada, she visited two university libraries, and several recently retrofitted and rebuilt central libraries to understand their evolving role in society.    

The results

The Fellowship provided Gemma with a profoundly valuable experience.  During her time in Europe and North America, she interviewed around fifty people, and visited thirty-four buildings, giving her deep and long-lasting insight into the interests of staff and customers, and the role of architects and designers in shaping the public library of the future.      

On her return to the UK, she organised a half day workshop at the Royal Society of Arts, to which she invited key stakeholders from the global library community.  She has been involved in conversation with representatives from the Arts Council, and Designing Libraries, on how to publish the material she gathered during her tour.  She has also written several articles on her findings, and is in the process of putting together a proposal for research on the role of public libraries in bringing about social equity, focusing on cities undergoing gentrification.

Gemma has become known as an expert in this under explored area of design.  She has developed an understanding of the overlaps between libraries, community, education, and work spaces, so her knowledge is of broader relevance to build environment professionals.  As a social anthropologist, working in the built environment, she is now in a position to have a profound impact on the conceptualisation and construction of cities.  



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