Commentary: Why Austin’s new Central Library is a vision for the future


The Austin Public Library recently opened its spectacular facility with much fanfare to respond to a diversity of needs in the Austin community. Transformed from a traditional library filled with books and other sources of information including media, the new open design sets itself apart as a new standard to address user needs in the 21st century. The timing of the opening of the new Austin Pubic Library is a perfect opportunity to highlight the resurgence of the central role of libraries in their respective communities, whether public, academic or school libraries, as they rethink their relevance amidst fast-paced changes.

In an information society like ours, libraries are critical to fill equity gaps in society by democratizing access to information, education, skills training and job placement. Simply put, the Austin Public Library epitomizes how libraries elsewhere can be improved to better serve their populations.

UPDATE: What you need to know about the opening of Austin’s new Central Library.

The strength of libraries is, after all, their relationship to their communities, whether public or academic. They are centers of learning, social gathering and creativity usually in central spaces, a premium in most communities and on university campuses. The Austin Public Library has not disappointed. In some respects, it is the library of the future and will meet a multitude of needs including shared learning spaces, the technology petting zoo, the innovation lounge, the children’s creative commons and the reading porches.

In a nutshell, libraries must rebrand themselves as technology-rich learning centers. The rapid rate of technological changes, coupled with new user expectations, have accelerated libraries’ transition from mediated services to unmediated services. From online catalogs, to self-checkout machines, to room reservations and laptop checkouts, users can now independently use and reserve library resources that extend well beyond books. And, the old rules don’t work in the new environment. For instance, food and drink, cafes and gift shops have become normal features in libraries.

OPENING DAY: In Austin’s new library, ‘We’re kind of in awe.’

Notwithstanding the difference in the primary communities they serve, different types of libraries have implemented changes that are consistent with new needs and expectations. At its opening, Austin Mayor Steve Adler described the Austin Public Library as the “cathedral of Austin.”

A national conference called “Re-think it: Libraries for a New Age” will soon bring together academic, public and K-12 librarians, administrators, technologists, architects, designers, furniture manufacturers and educators to the University of Texas. Together, they will collectively rethink the increasingly important role libraries play in the communities they serve.

In some ways, rethinking libraries will mean collapsing old paradigms and sacrificing some of the nostalgia that we may have for paper and silence. If libraries are to realize a future potential, they’ll need to play a significantly more active role in creativity and productivity processes. The library is no longer a place to worship books; rather, a library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, is the delivery room for the birth of ideas.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.

Austin isn’t the first city in recent years to invest in new library construction. Structures in Seattle and Minneapolis are notable recent examples of significant public reinvestment in libraries as an integral part of the community. The 21st century offers a renaissance period for libraries and library professionals to imagine the possibilities for the future. The Austin Public Library exemplifies a pioneering model in Texas for other municipalities to position their libraries as instruments of social empowerment. The time is now.

Haricombe is vice provost and the director of libraries at the University of Texas.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Letters to the editor: May 26, 2018
Letters to the editor: May 26, 2018

When Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said we live in “a violent culture where we devalue life,” he neglected to take responsibility for his role in dehumanizing his fellow Texans. He obsessively promoted the bathroom bill, which unnecessarily violated the privacy of schoolchildren. He fights to destroy public education, a building block of our democracy...
Commentary: How Texas can keep drivers of electric cars plugged-in
Commentary: How Texas can keep drivers of electric cars plugged-in

Today, the average Texas commuter drives more than 14,600 miles per year. With more than 28 million people calling the Lone Star State home and more than 24 million registered vehicles on the road, this adds up to a significant amount of harmful tailpipe emissions that threaten our health and our economy. As more vehicles are registered in Texas and...
Editorial: After ‘poverty pimps’ flap, Austin ISD must focus on kids
Editorial: After ‘poverty pimps’ flap, Austin ISD must focus on kids

We by no means excuse the words former Austin Independent School Board President Kendall Pace used in a private text to a fellow board member. Her language was uncouth and unprofessional. The fallout cost Pace her position on the board as those she offended along with political foes turned up the political heat. Pace’s judgment in making derogatory...
Commentary: Austin’s plastic bag ban is rubbish. Go check the landfill
Commentary: Austin’s plastic bag ban is rubbish. Go check the landfill

As the Texas Supreme Court will soon make its decision regarding the legality of plastic bag regulations in Texas, this is a good time to revisit the arguments used to promote plastic bag bans. A review of the data shows that plastic bag regulations don’t reduce litter overall — and, in fact, they incentivize products that have far greater...
Opinion: How Trump gets into your bed

It’s not every day we start our discussion of current events with the president’s sex life. Well, actually, it’s gotten to be pretty frequent. But today we’re going to talk less about what Donald Trump does in bed and more about his efforts to interfere with other people’s intimate affairs. “When I ran for office...
More Stories