Stepping Inside the Modern Library

A week ago I stepped inside the brand spankin’ new North Courthouse Road library in Chesterfield County, outside Richmond, Va.

Either we were seeing the future … or everything else we still see is already the past.

This was for a talk to the Friends of the Chesterfield Public Library. Great evening. The Friends put on a lavish reception, and we had an overflow crowd in the community room to talk about my book on The Richmond Forum — though some forced to sit in the hallway out beyond the doors could have found seats near the front. (Why is it people sit near the back? Do they think they’re in church? … Or did they just want an easy getaway if my talk was a bore.) Anyway, fun conversations that evening. And lots and lots of book sales. … Book people do buy books.

This new library was at least as much a community gathering space as it was traditional library. True, there were shelves for books — what we used to call the “stacks” — though they were perhaps half full. … I’m hoping that means more books will be bought.

There was much of what you might expect in a new library, though: nearly 50 computers, flat screens in various locations, and set-ups for businesses. This is a digital world, after all, though one the traditional paper world still shares.

But it was more the overall feel that was striking. The building was full of inviting spaces — the community room, the children’s book area, the business areas, even a great outdoor seating area — a ceiling-free reading room, you might say.

The large middle area of the building was especially open. One reason was the absence of a large reference desk. That’s by design, both to open up the building, which it does, and to make the library more “friendly,” you might say. Instead of having to come up to a formidable structure — sort of like approaching the Wizard of Oz — librarygoers will be greeted by helpful librarians strolling around with electronic tablets. … Of course, to those of us who like an old-fashioned reference desk, the strolling librarians seem the equivalent of sales associates. I get enough of that in stores.

But that’s a minor complaint — and one that feels curmudgeonly, even to me. Suffice to say, this is a beautiful building, with a beautiful approach. And one that feels inviting.

That’s the point.

Just as Starbucks redefined coffee shops into gathering spaces, and Barnes & Noble has been leading the change with bookstores, now modern libraries appear to be going that route, too — at least if the $12.3 million, 200,000-square-foot, 12-years-in-the-making North Courthouse Road branch is any indication. If libraries are to survive as physical entities, they likely have to evolve into both learning and gathering centers.

In the past, you went to libraries because you had to.

The bet is now you’ll want to.

(Photos courtesy of Friends of the Chesterfield Public Library, except where indicated)

From the front ... which is around back. (Photo NBC12)

North Courthouse Road Library reception, May 5, 2016

Community room before being set up. Glass at far end is covered by a 25-foot screen that comes down from the ceiling. (Photo, Chesterfield County)

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