Public Libraries in
the Smart City
Public Libraries in the Smart City
Dale Leorke · Danielle Wyatt
in the Smart City
University of Melbourne
Balaclava, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
ISBN 978-981-13-2805-3 (eBook)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2018956731
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2019
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This book is the culmination of over two years of collaboration between
us encompassing research, writing, interviews, and countless visits to
public libraries. It began with a conversation about how strongly libraries
seemed to be aligning themselves with wider visions of urban redevelopment and economic prosperity, and how little this had been addressed in
the scholarly literature. Our observations evolved into a public seminar,
a few conference papers, two research grants, a co-authored article, and
a white paper. When we realised we had more to say on this topic, we
embarked upon this book.
We would like to begin by thanking the two people who shepherded
this project from its inception: Audrey Yue, for her early encouragement
and pilot funding support; and Scott McQuire, for his always incisive guidance, feedback, and input on the subsequent publications we produced
We also extend our deep gratitude to the librarians, library managers, policymakers, and library users we interviewed for this project and
thank them for their thoughtful, honest, and enlightening responses to
Finally, we would like to thank the colleagues and friends who provided advice, ideas, or timely direction along the way: David Bissell,
Rachael Cilauro, Steph Hannon, Esther Hitchen, Rimi Khan, Ben Nicoll,
and Nikos Papastergiadis.
1 Introduction: More Than Just a Library1
2 Beacons of the Smart City13
3 Mixed Metaphors: Between the Head and the Heart
of the City57
4 Metrics, Metrocentricity, and Governance Models:
The Uneven Transformation of Libraries95
5 Coda: Library Futures117
List of Figures
Interior of the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre.
Photograph by John Gollings, used with permission 19
The ‘Share’ Space at library@orchard in Singapore.
Photograph by Dale Leorke 20
One of the Singapore’s sophisticated movement-tracking
sensors, in situ at Sengkang Public Library. Photograph
by Dale Leorke 29
The AutoSorter book-sorting technology on display at
the entrance to Bukit Panjang Public Library, Singapore.
Photograph by Dale Leorke 30
A screen capture of the Unstacked web interface. Image
copyright Elisa Lee and Adam Hinshaw, used with permission.
Unstacked is the result of the inaugural DX Lab Fellowship,
supported through a gift to the State Library of NSW
Foundation—a not-for-profit organisation which supports
key Library fellowships, innovative exhibitions, and landmark
SLQ Unstacked at the Knowledge Walk, State Library of
Queensland. Photograph by Lance Scafe-Elliott, used with
Interior of the library@orchard in Singapore. Photograph
by Dale Leorke 37
The curved shelving design at the library@orchard.
Photograph by Dale Leorke 38
List of Figures
The NLB’s new-look book display, located at Sengkang
Public Library, which emphasises the integration of physical
and digital content. Photograph by Dale Leorke 39
Exterior of the Geelong Regional Library & Heritage
Centre. Photograph by Edward Blake, used under
CC-BY licence 58
The children and families’ space in the GLHC. Photograph
by John Gollings, used with permission 63
Interior of the GLHC. Photograph by John Gollings,
used with permission 64
Exterior of the now-closed North Fitzroy Library
in Melbourne. Photograph by Dale Leorke 74
Exterior of the Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library,
opened in April 2017. Photograph supplied by City
of Yarra, used with permission 75
Exterior of the State Library Victoria in Melbourne.
Photograph supplied by State Library Victoria, used with
Artists’ impression of the new Information Centre
on the ground floor of the State Library Victoria.
Photograph copyright Development Victoria, supplied
by State Library Victoria and used with permission 78
Artists’ impression of the Start Space mezzanine
in the State Library Victoria. Photograph copyright
Development Victoria, supplied by State Library
Victoria and used with permission 80
The City of Melbourne’s Service Performance Indicators
for its libraries. The four indicators—utilisation, resource
standard, service cost, and participation—are the only ones
requested by the State Government (Source City
of Melbourne 2017: 129) 100
One of the Toronto Public Library Board’s Key Indicators
for its libraries in 2016 (Source Toronto Public
Library 2016: 1) 104
List of Tables
A taxonomy of the technologies underpinning
the smart city model
A taxonomy of the ‘smart city’ technologies now
being deployed in public libraries
Introduction: More Than Just a Library
Abstract This chapter introduces the key argument of this book, which
concerns the role of public libraries within the smart city. We argue that
the expansion of the library into other sectors of social and cultural life is
connected to the economic development strategies of the cities in which
they are built. As we outline, this is becoming particularly apparent in
‘smart city’ visions, made possible by the ubiquity of networked technologies, which numerous cities are adopting to position themselves as
efficient, innovative, and liveable. The chapter situates this trend within
broader contemporary debates about the library’s social and cultural significance, and provides an outline of the structure of the book.
· Public libraries · Smart cities
Frank (Frank Langella) is the ageing protagonist of Jake Schrier’s 2012
film, Robot & Frank. Suffering from dementia in a time marginally
ahead of our own, he is being cared for by a domestic robot. His friend,
Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), works at the local library. Early in the film,
Frank visits the library to return some books. This vaguely Carnegie-style
building looks familiar to us, a comfortable, shabby space where Jennifer
duct-tapes the spines of some well-worn books on dusty wooden shelves.
The only incongruous feature here is Mr. Darcy, a book-sorting robot,
who, according to Jennifer, ‘does all the real work anyway’. Hunting
down a book for Frank, Jennifer explains that she won’t be duct-taping
© The Author(s) 2019
D. Leorke and D. Wyatt, Public Libraries in the Smart City,
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
books much longer—‘a new non-profit is taking over the library, and
they want to “reimagine” the modern library experience’.
Revisiting the library later in the film, Frank observes that this transition is well underway. Books are being removed from the shelves to be
scanned, digitised, and recycled. Dusty shelving has been replaced with
retro-futurist furniture, minimalist sculptures, and shared working desks.
A cool white light suffuses the space.
This time, Frank is greeted by Mr. Darcy, who has replaced Jennifer
at the reception desk. ‘Where is the librarian?’ Frank asks. Deadpan, Mr.
Darcy responds, ‘I am not familiar with that title’.
When Frank locates Jennifer she is talking to Jake (Jeremy Strong),
the non-profit founder funding the library’s renovation. Jake says patronisingly to Frank, ‘you must remember the days when this library was
the only way to learn about the world […] I’d love to talk to you some
more about your history with printed information. You’re our connection to the past, buddy’.
The library depicted in Robot & Frank is not a vision of the near
future. It is a commonplace experience for many library visitors today—
robots and a few other features aside (for now, at least). Bookshelves are
disappearing or receding into designated ‘collections’ zones. Borrowing
and library queries are increasingly being replaced by screen interfaces
and automated services. And the interior décor of libraries more often
resembles an artfully decorated studio apartment or tech start-up’s office
than the sober furnishings of the traditional Carnegie-model library.
This fictional vignette encapsulates the transformation libraries are currently undergoing around the world, capturing the visible changes many
readers may have noticed taking place in their own local libraries. Libraries
began to incorporate digital technologies and platforms into their spaces
from the late 1990s onwards. And while this might have changed the
library’s interior design, only in the past decade or so have these technologies begun to impact more fundamentally upon what a library is.
Robot & Frank also humorously taps into familiar anxieties about
how these changes will impact on the experience of visiting libraries as
we embark upon a future of ubiquitous connectivity, automation, and
digital disruption. Frank’s lament to Jennifer about the disappearance
of physical books—‘what’s the point of a library if you can’t check out
the books?’—reflects concerns (whether empirically informed or merely
nostalgic) about how a paperless future might influence how we consume, digest, and share information. Meanwhile, the experience of being
1 INTRODUCTION: MORE THAN JUST A LIBRARY
greeted by a robot feeds into a growing ambivalence about an increasingly impersonalised service delivery environment, as mundane labour is
outsourced to machines, public help desks are closed, and service providers turn to digital-by-default service models.
Robot & Frank eloquently indicates that a study of the transformation
of the library, the subject of this book, is tied to broader philosophical
questions. It brings to the fore issues of social and economic value, questions around how we retain continuity with the past and with others in
our society, and of how we find comfort and meaning in what feels like a
less human-centric world. In part, when we talk about the library being
‘more than just a library’, these basic human concerns are never far from
the surface. They are, in many ways, what is at stake in the transformation we explore here.
For millennia, libraries have been understood as media centres, reinventing themselves around the technologies through which information
is encoded, organised, and accessed. In our efforts to understand their
more recent history as public institutions in liberal democratic states, the
library’s need for technological innovation must be understood as intertwined with its necessity for social invention. Public libraries have always
been responsive to the changing needs and ambitions of the societies
they serve. As such, they form part of the social infrastructure through
which technology is embodied in social life (Wajcman 2002; Wyatt et al.
Along with museums, galleries, and universities, public libraries have been foundational to consolidating a shared public culture.
Providing universal access to information—however this might be
materially embodied and defined—they support the capacity to critically engage and participate in society. But the public library is unique
among other cultural institutions because of the way it has, as Shannon
Mattern (2007: 1) identifies, ‘served multiple social roles’ at once, ‘even
those that are not related to information services’. Public libraries have
been charged with educating populations and conscripting them into
a modern public sphere. They have served a range of more instrumental agendas, from childhood literacy to bridging the digital divide. And
when economic conditions have necessitated it, they have contributed
directly to local economies by establishing commercial and trade departments and supporting emerging industries (Black and Pepper 2012). As
Mattern (2014: 4) has argued, ‘At every stage, the contexts – spatial,
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
political, economic, cultural – in which libraries function have shifted;
so they are continuously reinventing themselves and the means by which
they provide those vital information services’.
While institutional reinvention is intrinsic to the history of the library,
it is clear that the last fifteen years has been a period of intensified transformation. This transformation has been widespread, following similar patterns across library networks in North America, Europe, the UK,
and parts of the Asia-Pacific. Digitisation is central to understanding
what contemporary libraries have become. But so are other broad social
changes related to an increasingly heterogeneous and diverse culture and
the impacts of neoliberal governance on the funding and management
of public institutions (Dudley 2013). All aspects of the contemporary
library have been influenced by these broad shifts: the way it looks as a
physical space; the kinds of practices and behaviours it invites; the way it
envisions and relates to its public; how it engages with other institutions
and organisations; and the role it plays in the city, the neighbourhood,
the community, and the economy.
Recent library developments reflect the library’s responsiveness to a
rapidly changing technological landscape. Online archives seemingly
threatened to make the library’s role as repository of knowledge redundant in the 1990s, and digital platforms challenged the dominance of
the book as the medium for learning and information exchange. When
access to collections was no longer dependent upon access to the library
as a physical site, libraries were compelled to radically reimagine their
institutional model. While they have digitised their collections, becoming increasingly mobile and networked, this dematerialisation of the
library as archive has gone hand in hand with an intensified attention
to physical space. As the need to manage books and physical collections
declines, libraries have invested in the idea of themselves as ‘third places’
(Oldenburg 1989): vital sites of public gathering, relaxation, and leisure
situated between home and work.
In multicultural cities where a shared culture cannot be assumed,
libraries are particularly valued as places for face-to-face cross-cultural
interaction and meeting (Audunson 2005; Audunson et al. 2011).
Libraries have actively encouraged this kind of informal use, investing in
flexible and attractive furnishings and technological affordances like public screens and free Wi-fi to make people feel comfortable and at home
in their spaces. At the same time, they have used their spaces in a more
deliberate manner to attract new user communities and stimulate new
1 INTRODUCTION: MORE THAN JUST A LIBRARY
forms of use through targeted programming. They have customised collections and services to address different language groups, age groups,
and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds—like running homework
clubs for school students, or digital storytelling workshops for migrant
Libraries are ‘meso-level’ sites (Mansell 2002) that mediate between
the community and the state. In their expanded form, they are assuming wider social significance, not simply as platforms for distributing
knowledge, or as places for building community. Rather, the library has
become an important civic asset for addressing the opportunities and
challenges of an emerging digital culture and the transition to a knowledge economy. They are places that can accommodate the expectations,
practices, and pleasures of a new generation of users, disposed towards
‘customization and interactivity’ (Holmberg et al. 2009: 669). They are
being relied upon by governments in supporting the digitally excluded—
those who lack access to the basic technologies and literacies essential
to participating in society as a citizen (Jaeger et al. 2012). And they are
increasingly positioning themselves as innovation hubs of the new economy, supporting entrepreneurial activity and the skills required to thrive
in a digital future.
The transformation libraries are undergoing is multifaceted. It can,
at times, appear contradictory. This is partly because the library’s newer
functions—developing infrastructure for connectivity and remote access
to their collections; providing users with the digital skills they need to
navigate an online world; and providing enhanced spaces for the creation of content—have had to be brought into productive relation with
the more traditional aspects of the library as meeting place, archive, and
repository of public memory. But also, as flexible and adaptive institutions, responsive to both community needs ‘on the ground’ and more
abstract governmental agendas, libraries are attempting to hold an
increasingly divergent assemblage of different functions together within
the one institutional model. Paulina Mickiewicz, discussing the Rolex
Learning Centre at a Polytechnic in Lausanne, could be talking about
many contemporary public libraries when she says:
What is noteworthy about the Centre is that although it blends all the elements of modern library design, it is not called a “library,” providing a
vast range of services and space – from the library and study areas to cafés
and restaurants. This is significant, as it suggests the current discourse that
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
holds that libraries are no longer “just libraries,” but a hybrid of different
specializations and services that have come together to create a new public
space. (2016: 239)
Her account echoes much of the commentary on this new wave of
library development, and the recent attempts to capture how this
unwieldy institution should be framed and understood (Wyatt et al.
2018; Mattern 2014; Weinberger 2012).
The expanded remit of the library is visible in the many investments
in high-profile public libraries occurring in cities across the world.
Typically, these libraries feature in large-scale urban redevelopment initiatives aimed at reinvigorating urban centres, supporting jobs in the digital
economy, and helping communities transition towards a ‘digital future’.
As we recount in the next chapter, high-profile developments like the
Vancouver Public Library (1995), Peckham Public Library (London,
2000), library@esplanade (Singapore, 2002), Seattle’s Central Library
(2004), and Biblioteca Parque España (Medellín, 2007) typify this new
status of libraries in the city. Architecturally celebrated, these libraries
focus as much on providing high-speed broadband and digital literacy
workshops as on their physical collections and book clubs.
Many are co-located with other community and commercial spaces:
galleries, performing arts spaces, maternal and child health care centres,
local council service desks, office spaces, shopping centres, and even public pools. While this may be, in many cases, a gesture to convenience—
placing core services together to increase accessibility—it also signals
‘a world of collapsing boundaries’ (McRobbie 2016: 15), in which the
fundamental categories that have historically organised social life are no
longer distinct and separate. In contemporary public libraries, public
space is permeated by private digital platforms, commercial spaces like
cafés and bookshops, and other forms of private enterprise: social services
overlap with cultural life. As new networked media makes it easier and
cheaper for people to produce their own content, libraries are supporting people to turn their hobbies into commercial enterprises. Conversely,
hosting makerspaces, coworking spaces, and meetups, libraries facilitate
social networking through which independent professionals and freelancers are building social and creative communities. The hybrid nature
of contemporary libraries is both a reflection of and contributor to this
wider reconfiguration of the way we live, learn, and work.
1 INTRODUCTION: MORE THAN JUST A LIBRARY
It is clear that the reinvention of the public library has significance
beyond the institution itself. It is timely then, to examine the reasons
for, and implications of, the library’s transformation and to attend to
some of the tensions emerging in its wake. This book makes the case
for considering libraries beyond the cultural frameworks that have historically underpinned library scholarship. Instead, it seeks to understand
how powerful narratives around technological change, and the economic agendas attached to these, are shaping what libraries are becoming. Important as physical space has always been and continues to be for
the library, understanding the significance of this dynamic and hybrid
site requires framing a study beyond the four walls of the institution. We
argue that the expansion of the library into other sectors of social and
cultural life is connected to the economic development strategies of the
cities in which they are built. As we outline, this is becoming particularly apparent in ‘smart city’ visions, made possible by the ubiquity of
networked technologies, which numerous cities are adopting to position
themselves as efficient, innovative, and liveable.
There have been numerous studies in both scholarly and policy arenas of how digitisation is transforming the physical space of the library,
in terms of its architecture, interior design, and use of space (see, e.g.,
John 2016; Palfrey 2015; Sharma 2012). This literature is proficient at
articulating the many ways spaces for experimental technologies, the
presence of screens, and new kinds of programming are transforming
the library’s role in the lives and practices of its users. But this literature often overlooks the connections between these changes and broader
socio-economic conditions and narratives. Historical studies of libraries suggest that their value lies in something more than the pedagogic
kinds of exchange and sociality they offer to their immediate users within
physical, face-to-face encounters. As Alistair Black and Simon Pepper
(2012: 440) argue, ‘By virtue of their status as communication media,
the messages invested in, and generated by, library buildings are perhaps
more meaningful and potent than those associated with a great deal of
other material culture’. Many of the new services and roles contemporary libraries are assuming—supporting digital literacy and bridging the
digital divide; allocating spaces and programs fostering entrepreneurship and innovation; and becoming ‘tech hubs’ and makerspaces to
encourage creative production—participate in and advance visions of a
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
technology-driven, entrepreneurialist future. Adopting these roles and
functions, libraries not only shape users to be capable and fit participants
in a digital economy. They market themselves as the visible embodiment of the ‘smart’, ‘creative’, and competitive image their city seeks to
It is surprising, then, that very little attention has been paid to the
relationship between the library’s transformation and the broader role
they are playing in their cities’ cultural and economic development.
Similarly, there has been little theoretical or empirical research on the
impact the intersection of libraries and smart city planning is having on
the governance and funding of libraries, on how they relate day-to-day
to their communities, and on how libraries are currently understood
by city planners and policymakers. This book aims to bridge this gap.
It brings ethnographic research into conversation with evidence from a
wide range of sources—policy strategies, planning documents, evaluation frameworks, library reports, statistics, and the wider scholarly literature—to understand the relationship between the contemporary library
and its dynamic urban context. While it draws widely from documentary
sources across Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, Europe, and the
UK, the ethnographic material is drawn primarily from case studies in the
Australian cities of Melbourne and Geelong, with some supplementary
material from the Australian state of Queensland’s public library network
and from the National Library Board in Singapore. Through this comparative and contextualised approach, the book offers three overarching
unique insights into the scholarship on libraries and smart city planning.
First, it provides one of the first critical accounts of the relationship between libraries and urban planning policy. Libraries are typically
neglected in urban studies scholarship, with little research in urban
planning journals and books devoted specifically to the library. There is
a similar neglect in the urban planning policy literature where they are
generally lumped under the broad category of ‘cultural infrastructure’
and cursorily examined alongside swimming pools, sporting clubs, learning centres, and other recreational spaces. As a result of this neglect,
both the broader drivers and implications of the library’s dramatic transformation within the urban environment remain unexamined.
Second, where existing scholarship on smart cities primarily concentrates
on the technological infrastructure and platforms that underpin smart
city projects, this book examines how the smart city agenda is directly
and indirectly shaping the imperatives of a specific public institution.
1 INTRODUCTION: MORE THAN JUST A LIBRARY
As such, this book offers a reorientation of smart city scholarship from
the bottom-up, illustrating how smart city agendas play out in an everyday space at the ‘meso-level’ interface between government and community. We consider how libraries are responding to the two pressures
that led to claims about their demise in the early 2000s—the Internet
and declining public investment—by reinventing themselves as flexible,
adaptable, and innovative spaces that are now playing a central role in
realising these visions. We consider both the benefits and challenges this
has created for libraries. We argue it has enabled them to attract new
funding and investment; but it has also created new imperatives and
responsibilities that they are struggling to fulfil.
Third, the book offers a very immediate view of the current state of
libraries by drawing upon recent interviews with a range of library professionals and policymakers (see Appendix A for a summary of interviews
conducted between 2015 and 2017). These respondents are at the cutting edge of the changes and challenges libraries are currently experiencing. As such, they provide insight into some of the dissonance and
tensions emerging between the large-scale visions of government and the
day-to-day needs of library users and communities. This ethnographic
research with professional library staff also highlights the incommensurate regimes of value around libraries. In particular, it draws attention to
the ways in which current measurement frameworks fail to capture the
expanded value of their work and the institutions they serve. Through
this ethnographic account, this book is able to draw attention to broader
incongruities between the role that libraries are playing in urban culture
and community life, and the governance models, funding structures,
and measurement frameworks through which they are administered and
What we seek to emphasise throughout the book is that, while the
smart city is a model of investment in tangible assets and expertise for
urban management, it is also a ‘vision’, a discourse, and a form of rhetoric and marketing (Greenfield 2013). As such, it is a means by which
cities harness the public imagination, attract investment, and project
themselves to their citizens and the world. The smart city vision brings
to the fore a particular narrative about what is urgent and what is desirable in cities and for citizens. There are many cogent critiques of the
smart city itself as techno-deterministic and top-down form of urban
control—which we explore further in Chapter 2. But notwithstanding these critiques, the library’s entanglement with smart city visions
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
is significant for the way in which it conscripts libraries into a new set
of priorities and values, in tension with the values that have historically
guided them as institutions. This fraught entanglement is the subject of
our study here.
Chapter 2 unpacks the history of the library’s relationship to the
smart city. We trace this relationship back to the growing role libraries
began to play in their cities’ cultural and economic policies in the late
twentieth century in response to claims about their imminent demise.
The chapter outlines how this process is unfolding using examples from
libraries in the Asia-Pacific, North America, South America, and Europe
that function as central features of urban redevelopment and ‘smart city’
initiatives. It identifies the key characteristics of this transformation: a significant investment in new library developments and redevelopments of
existing libraries in certain urban centres; and the integration of new services and spaces into these libraries aimed at helping their communities
transition to the digital future. Through the case study of Singapore’s
National Library Board, alongside other examples, we explicate the
increasingly diverse and nuanced roles libraries are expected to play in
their cities’ visions for future economic growth.
Chapter 3 draws upon ethnographic research from Melbourne and
Geelong to examine how libraries in these cities are being mobilised
within particular smart city visions. These case studies examine how
smart city rhetoric is materialising through these libraries’ day-to-day
reality. We highlight how being conscripted into smart city narratives has
reinforced and revitalised the importance of libraries to these cities. But
this has also imposed new expectations and pressures that are not being
recognised by administrators and funding bodies. These pressures, we
argue, highlight how the vision of libraries as free, accessible, and inviting spaces—the heart of their communities—clashes with their new role
as engines of innovation and the knowledge economy.
Chapter 4 compares the expectations for libraries to contribute to the
smart city with the governmental measurement frameworks and funding
structures through which they are managed. Drawing on the case studies
of the previous two chapters, we highlight a startling disparity between
the way libraries are valued rhetorically by their cities, and the terms
through which they are evaluated and funded. We illustrate this disjuncture in the way libraries are measured through evaluation frameworks,
governed and funded by their cities, and concentrated in affluent, inner
urban locales—often at the expense of outer urban and regional libraries.
1 INTRODUCTION: MORE THAN JUST A LIBRARY
This prompts questions about the viability of libraries to continue to
play a multitude of roles and the need to have their value recognised and
embedded at higher levels of government.
We conclude this book with a brief Coda: Library Futures. Here, we
reflect on our findings and gesture towards an alternative path for libraries—one that frames them less as an instrument of the smart city than as
its antidote, in service to the mixed impacts of a digital culture.
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Beacons of the Smart City
Abstract This chapter examines how libraries are becoming increasingly
entangled in the economic agendas, planning policies, and development
strategies of their cities. We outline how this process is unfolding using
examples of libraries across the Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America, and
South America that function as central pillars of their cities’ ‘smart city’
initiatives and digital strategies. We outline the twofold way in which this
integration of public libraries into smart city planning is taking place.
First, through the integration of smart city technologies—sensors, dashboards, and data analytics software—into the physical fabric of libraries.
Second, and most significantly for this book, the incorporation of new
services and spaces into libraries that support the underlying agendas of
the smart city—to transition citizens, businesses, and government into a
‘smart’, ‘creative’, and ‘sustainable’ postindustrial knowledge economy.
Keywords Creative cities · Digitisation · Public libraries
Neoliberalism · Smart cities · Urban policy
What were the driving forces beyond the public library’s dramatic transformation at the turn of the twenty-first century? How is the expansion
of digital technologies into all areas of life and work reshaping the experience and significance of public libraries today? And how has the library’s
digital transformation driven new synergies between this cultural institution and urban policy, now culminating in visions of the smart city?
© The Author(s) 2019
D. Leorke and D. Wyatt, Public Libraries in the Smart City,
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
This chapter sets the scene for understanding how libraries became
entangled with smart city agendas. Drawing from examples across the
Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America, and South America, we demonstrate that while these entanglements are uneven and variously articulated, the relationship between libraries and the smart city is global in
scale and stems from similar imperatives. New library developments
across the globe are bright lights in the city. They signal the renewed
prominence of a civic infrastructure that seemed to be slipping into
the backwaters of public life, a mundane cultural institution considered
inconsequential because it catered most to children and pensioners, and
suburban concerns on the periphery of what counts as public culture.
But the light of the reinvented public library is ambiguous. A beacon is
both guide and warning. In this chapter, we outline the forces shaping
the evolution of the public library today, charting how it has come to be
entangled in the smart city.
The Reinvention of the Contemporary Library
It would not be an overstatement to say that public libraries found themselves in a state of existential crisis at the turn of the twenty-first century.
During the 1990s, many commentators observed the advent and global
expansion of the commercial Internet and the subsequent explosion of
information, texts, and multimedia circulating online. These developments led to countless claims that libraries would soon become extinct,
and their bricks and mortar presence made redundant in the atemporal
and immaterial ‘space of flows’ (Castells 2000) that comprised cyberspace. As one MIT Technology Review writer envisioned in 2005,
electronic reading devices will continue to improve until they rival the resolution and usability of regular books. At that point, the only burning reason for a physical trip to the library will be to see a copy of a needed book
that has not yet been digitized, or that has been digitized but is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions. (MIT Technology Review 2005:
In this vision—far from unique at the time—libraries would be little
more than ‘archives’ tended to by ‘preservationists’; visits to libraries
would become as ‘anachronistic’ as using a payphone or posting a letter
(Roush 2005: n.p.).
2 BEACONS OF THE SMART CITY
During this same period, as Paul T. Jaeger et al. (2014) observe,
neoliberal economic policies threatened the funding of libraries and
other public services through privatisation and budget cuts. These policies have been compounded recently by crippling austerity measures in
response to the global financial crisis of 2007/2008. Library services
have been systematically decimated as a result of austerity and the withdrawal of public investment in the UK (BBC News 2016; CILIP 2016;
Forkert 2016), Greece (Giannakopoulos et al. 2014), and both federally
and in numerous states in the USA (Dudley 2013: 4–5; EveryLibrary
2017; Kavner 2011; White House 2018). In addition, libraries have
been targeted by budget cuts or funding freezes at various levels of government in Australia (ABC News 2016; Renew Our Libraries 2018),
Canada (Keenan 2016; Ontario Library Association 2018), Germany
(Heizereder 2016), Ireland (McGreevy 2015), and elsewhere.1
These immediate pressures on the library’s bottom line are compounded by neoliberal political ideologies hostile to ‘big government’
and publicly funded institutions. As Jaeger et al. (2014: 6–7) note,
libraries are often characterised as outmoded ‘tax burdens’ no longer
relevant in the digital era by conservative politicians and media outlets.
They write, ‘the fact that library activities and contributions to their
communities cannot be easily translated into monetary terms makes
them easy targets for budget cuts, a fact that has been all too apparent
throughout the prolonged economic downturn that began in 2008’
As Michael Dudley also notes, public libraries have become targets
in a political climate where ‘the very notion of “the public” has come
under attack’ by the political right (2013: 6; original emphasis). Shannon
Mattern (2014, n.p.) highlights how, within this climate, libraries are
not merely fighting off calls for their defunding. They are ironically also
expected to take on more responsibilities to fill the void left by the decimation of other social services, even as their own budgets diminish.
Public libraries in the USA, she observes, have been reduced to ‘de facto
community centres’ in the wake of a shrinking public sector (Mattern
2014: n.p.). They increasingly adopt multiple, sometimes conflicting,
roles: informal homeless aid programs; shelters and ‘urban resilience’
centres during emergencies and environmental disasters; childcare centres; voter registration and election sites; and classrooms during teacher
strikes—to name but a few. These roles are added onto their traditional
ones, often without any additional funding to support them.
D. LEORKE AND D. WYATT
As Kirsten Forkert (2016) has also revealed, it is not only librarians
who are burdened with these growing pressures and responsibilities.
Library patrons themselves are also increasingly conscripted into the
running of thinly stretched and under-resourced library services. Her
research on the campaign against the closure of five public libraries in
Lewisham, London, in 2011, demonstrates how volunteers and advocates filled the void left by laid-off library staff, in a bid to keep their
libraries open. As Laura Swaffield (2017: n.p.) from the UK Library
Campaign puts it, community members from all over Britain are presented with ‘a stark choice: take over a local library or it faces closure’.
Coupled with claims about the library’s imminent obsolescence in the
digital era, these existential attacks on public libraries compelled them
to respond both rhetorically and practically. Rhetorically, they mobilised
commentators, scholars, library associations, and librarians themselves to
vocally defend and reaffirm the ongoing relevance of their institutions in
an era of digitisation and neoliberalism.
On public library advocacy sites, web pages listing reasons for the
library’s continued importance in the digital era are not uncommon. The
newsletter Public Libraries News (n.d.: n.p.) advises that ‘88% of books
are not online’ and warns anyone thinking digital platforms can replace
public libraries that ‘even those online are not entirely safe’ from censorship and removal from databases by Apple, Amazon, or Google. In
2001, the American Libraries magazine published ‘10 reasons why the
internet is no substitute for a library’, including ‘not everything is on the
internet’, ‘quality control doesn’t exist’, and—perhaps somewhat disingenuously, in retrospect—the ‘headaches and eyestrain’ that result from
reading e-books ‘for more than a half-hour’ (Herring 2001: n.p.). Its
updated version, published in 2017, provides more timely reasons: libraries are ‘safe’ from ‘cyberbullying and trolling’; ‘respect history’ and ‘digitise influential primary sources’; ‘provide venues for creativity, learning,
and community’; and ‘do not censor’ (Banks 2017: n.p.).
More publicly, author Nicholas Carr argues that memory is tied
to physicality and spatial navigation, so ‘libraries as spaces play a very
important role in that’ (quoted in Peet 2016: n.p.). And responding to
library funding cuts in North America and the UK, prominent writers
such as Margaret Atwood (2017), Neil Gaiman (2013), Philip Pullman
(see Page 2011), and Zadie Smith (2012) have vocally defended the pivotal role libraries continue to play in their own and other people’s lives.