Library of the Future: A.I., machine learning and smart lighting augment libraries

Louisville Free Public Library Northeast Regional Library

Photo credit: Architects: MSR Design and JRS Architects / Photographer: Cory Klein
Published On
Dec 15, 2021

Twentieth-century libraries were stereotypically silent, predictable caverns with bookcases, study desks and a librarian shushing patrons. That’s not the model for libraries today or tomorrow, whether they are community spaces or academic facilities. New demands from tech-savvy users require libraries to rethink everything from lighting to audiovisual and digital laboratory technology.

Today’s library is all-inclusive, open to school and community members, and that means diversifying the services being provided to match the users who visit. MSR Design, Hyattsville, Md., is an architecture and design company specializing in libraries. The company has seen the transition as it provides design work for renovations and new constructions, and it is at the forefront of helping libraries make the shift to being more technology-focused and smarter buildings.

Learning has evolved to more active, hands-on opportunities, said Traci Lesneski, MSR Design’s CEO and principal. That means today’s active information-seekers are hardly passive absorbers of knowledge. Lesneski also serves on the American Library Association’s Core Architecture for Public Libraries Committee.

For libraries, that has implications for how the space is used. Areas once solely housing shelves and stacks now have labs with digital tools and equipment of various levels of sophistication. One challenge is keeping up with technological advances.

“What’s new today may be obsolete in just five years, and libraries need to be prepared to upgrade and respond to the changes as they happen,” Lesneski said.

To accommodate this, infrastructure needs to allow the library to evolve gracefully over time. That doesn’t mean an end to books. Print is not dead, and collections in digital and physical form will continue, Lesneski said. However, how books are handled, stored and accessed is evolving, as is storage. Off-site, compact storage is part of the new library model, according to Lesneski, along with a dispersed model of more, smaller sites that share resources.

Lighting considerations have also changed. Traditionally, there was a simple formula that suited most libraries. Buildings required reliable illumination for books and table surfaces for study. Now, lighting needs to accommodate community gatherings that might feature cooking, music sampling or podcasting, Lesneski said.

For electrical contractors, that means more renovations and new structures with a larger low-voltage capacity. Electrical contractors are finding ways to build cabling, in spaces such as labs, into structures from an earlier era. More recently built libraries have raised flooring to house the new cable. Other zoning strategies target dedicated building space for cabling. Also, there are ways to bring in power that serve as compromises, such as thin raised floors to avoid shrinking the height of the space.

Wellness trends include bringing in more natural light or complete daylight autonomy, along with lighting intelligence. Another consideration libraries now face is serving as a role model for users, such as displaying their renewable energy use so people can understand carbon footprints and how they can be reduced. Some libraries are drawing on alternative power sources such as solar panels, or accommodations for such technology in the future, to meet those power requirements.

In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic shaped library configurations in several ways. Lesneski sees several silver linings arising from the pandemic. For one thing, the public and building managers have learned the benefits of taking activities outside and emphasizing the link between indoor and outdoor spaces. As the public finds some fresh-air activities work well, even in the winter, libraries are beginning to be designed to enable such activities.

Lesneski also indicated that air quality is a new focus. In the past, she said, “Investing in high-quality air exchange was often downgraded.” That is no longer the case.

Missoula Public Library

​​​​Photo credit: Architect of record: A&E Architects / Photographer: Lara Swimmer

Whether indoors or outdoors, libraries share a common purpose of connecting people to information and people to people, said Brianna Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Library Association, Seattle. Like Lesneski, she predicted that, “You’re likely to see more meeting space and more creative spaces in the libraries of the future.”

Many public libraries also are incorporating STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) collaborative work spaces into facilities, Hoffman said. These spaces have such equipment as 3D printers, vinyl cutters, green screens, photo lighting, virtual reality sets and even power tools. These all take power to run, so the spaces must be equipped accordingly. With libraries providing more meeting spaces and hosting speaking programs, projectors and sound systems also need to be taken into consideration.

“Even though it may sound basic, just having ample accessible outlets for patrons to plug in laptops, or charging stations for devices, are incredibly important in public libraries,” Hoffman said.

Artificial intelligence (A.I.) laboratories at universities are also turning up in libraries where they can be accessible to the community. The University of Rhode Island (URI), Kingstown, R.I., has opened an A.I. lab to bring awareness of the technology to students, researchers and the community at large, said Karim Boughida, dean of university libraries at URI. He calls it a matter of inclusivity. The idea is to bring diversity to A.I. and machine learning to prevent the kinds of patterns of inequality that can be prevalent in society, he said.

The URI library, as an interdisciplinary space that values inclusivity, is the ideal place for people of all backgrounds to learn about A.I., Boughida said. The lab opened in fall 2021 in the Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons on URI’s main campus. The A.I. lab occupies 600 square feet on the first floor and offers tutorials for everyone from beginners to technically advanced learners on subjects such as robotics, smart cities and homes, natural language processing, the internet of things and big data. Faculty may use the space for teaching, and they will be encouraged to incorporate A.I. topics into their syllabi, Boughida said.

He believes the library is an exploratory space and place for community engagement, education and scholarship.

“When we opened an A.I. lab in the library, people said ‘What the heck? It should be in the computer science department,’” However the library was taking a different approach. “A.I. is not just for the top researcher. We’re a public university and wanted students exposed to A.I., design thinking lab and augmented reality lab,” he said.

There is still space for the old-fashioned printed books, Boughida added. In the 1930s, library users worried that microfilm was going to kill the book, which didn’t happen. In fact, there’s always collaboration in media.

“Books are our roots, and no matter how much libraries evolve, I think they always will be,” Hoffman said.

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