Talk as loudly as you like, this is a library

For the longest time, waiting rooms were the butt of jokes for their sorry collections of old magazines. 

It always seemed a bit mean to me. Your doctor, or you dentist, or your optician had thoughtfully put out something for you to read while you wait. They didn't have to bother, but here you were, looking at the Woman’s Weekly saying, “I was still in high school when this one came out.” 

This is probably not going to matter for much longer. I take my seat in the waiting room and what do I do? And what do most people seem to do also? We take out our phone and we’re perfectly content, even though these devices are the death of conversation and all that sort of thing. Another tweet, another selfie, another meme and look at the time flying, ‘the doctor will see you now’.  

There are people who maintain that because we are now so connected this way, and because so many homes have the world's store of knowledge right there on the screen in the living room and the kitchen and the bedroom, a library is looking as redundant as a waiting room coffee table. 

There are libraries that have received this challenge and have responded with great energy, imagination and vision. It has been really quite marvellous. Far from a swansong, it has more the look of the beginnings of a golden age. 

The New York Times recently wrote about this, describing some of the world’s best and newest libraries; tourist attractions in their own right. I immediately decided I want to visit all of them, preferably by train, because why not make the holiday perfect in every way? 

I am not exaggerating in the least. These places sound remarkable. 

The Central Library in Austin, Texas has a ‘technology petting zoo’ where you can play with new gadgets. Don’t have a 3D printer yet? Here - try theirs. Want to make beautiful music? Step this way to the recording studio. Feel like making new life? Take something home from the seed library, plant it, water it, watch it bloom in the Texas sun. 

In Aarhus, Denmark, the library has all kinds of facilities for entrepreneurs: not just meeting rooms and so forth, but also business librarians who can help solve your financial challenges, and classes you can take to build your skills. 

It also has a massive gong that rings whenever a mother in a nearby hospital gives birth.  

And here we see one of the crucial considerations that this new generation of libraries has embraced: we have a great need for places where we can gather as a community and help one another. You can't do that in the mall. 

Helsinki’s Central Library covers 185,000 square feet, and only one third of that is books. The rest is community space.  

There’s an urban workshop with sewing machines, scanners, printers, laser cutters and soldering stations.  

You can set yourself up at an information desk and tell people about your business and the services it offers.  

There’s nothing you can’t put in one of these places, is the modern thinking. To lure the teenagers there’s a movie theatre and a gaming zone where the kids can battle one another in public. 

We’re at our best when we’re meeting and exchanging. What better place to do it than a breathtakingly beautiful library? In Qatar, beneath the 72-foot-tall ceiling made entirely of glass, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra performs once a month, for free. They also have a knitting group that comes together for hours at a time. There are labs for writing music. There are nearly 100 free events each month, for very kind of interest.  

At the Museum of Literature in Dublin, they have a radio station broadcasting all day, all night, all week long. Academics, musicians and writers passing through Ireland: you're most welcome to drop in and have a bit of a chat on air.  

Did I mention trains? We’re in Canada now, on their light rail, rolling all the way into Calgary’s New Central Library. They thought, the light rail is there, we’re building a new library, why not put two beautiful things together? 

In France’s Gare du Nord right now, they're turning one of Europe's biggest and busiest train stations into something smarter and fancier. What they have in mind is mostly a whole lot of glass, and acres and acres of shops and escalators.  

There are architects in Paris saying sacre bleu. I’m on their side. I love that place, and I can’t think of a more ghastly fate for it. The number of new malls the world needs right now is approximately zero. What we need are more libraries.  

 

David Slack is an Auckland-based author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter.

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