Once upon a time, the library was a revered, dusty old vault overflowing with leather-bound treasures. It was a contemplative yet lonely oasis, where people ventured out solo into distant, fantastical worlds and realms of boundless knowledge. Anyone daring to raise their voice above a whisper and pull readers back from their voyage was met with hostile glares and urgent hushes.
Yet this timeworn stereotype seems to have, for the most part, made way for a friendlier vibe. While today there are still many study areas specially designated for those seeking out the hushed climate of yesteryear, the library is no longer the silent cove it once was.
Today’s libraries are increasingly becoming communal spaces, hubs of social interaction, exchanging knowledge and creative collaboration as they work to keep up with the fast-paced world beyond its walls. Such changes are luring business-minded folk, from independent freelancers to whole startup teams, through their doors, effectively transforming many library wings into communal, coworking office spaces.
Just like the ones you find downtown, tucked away in creative, digital neighbourhoods, surrounded by cool coffee hangouts. Except these ones are free - and more likely than not, have a Starbucks thrown in there too.
What’s more, with their doors left wide open to everyone, they’re often far more diverse than their private, paid-for, coworking cousins across the street. There’s also usually a dynamic calendar of events on offer, from book discussions and author appearances to skill-building workshops and even gigs (thanks, Nick Mulvey!)
Yet despite this enticing facelift, the bustling modern library is still contending with its stiff, scholarly heritage. An Arts Council report into young people’s interactions with UK libraries identifies this explicitly as an “image problem.” The library, traditionally an epicentre of reading and learning, is often derided as being “uncool” or “geeky.” Another report has collected the terms most frequently used by young people to describe libraries - it’s a long list of “boring,” “stuffy” and “uncool” jibes. Participants have wondered if such notions can be attributed to popular culture, the likely culprit being American films and sitcoms, in which young people who use the library are often branded as “nerdy.”
Networked Narrative can be commended for helping to dispel these outdated clichés. Through this project, young people are meeting in libraries to learn all the skills that the 21st century business world demands - programming, coding, collaboration, creative thinking, branding. Yet there’s nothing stuffy about it at all. As they learn, they find themselves becoming lost in the fantastical worlds that the traditional library once housed. Only this time, they’re creating these worlds themselves.
And if you’re still looking to uncover some of the library’s older worlds, bookshelves can certainly still crumble away to reveal Narnia-like plains, while others are still known to swing open into the secret passageways of lost, ancient worlds.
Of course, for many of us, these lands can now be discovered and explored from our own homes. We even have special knights, riding atop shiny Royal Mail carriages, that deliver them straight to our doors.
But sometimes it’s still worth exploring the nooks and crannies of an old, library Reading Room. Because you might just find an overlooked treasure that Google’s algorithms haven’t yet flagged up as a profitable, online sale.
Networked Narrative is recruiting young people for the next phase. Contact [email protected] for more information on how to get involved with this library-based project.