Bryan Beilke

Sunlight streams in through the glass atrium, diffusing through rooms where people sit and chat animatedly to each other, sipping coffee and typing away at their laptops. In another room, separated by frosted glass, a young man sits in silence, absorbed by the words he’s reading on his digital screen. Just on the other side of the glass walls, passengers bustle through the airport terminal, running to catch flights to distant parts of an increasingly digital world.

This is a library of the not-so-distant future, at least in the mind of architecture junior Adam Terwall.

Nineteen students from Cal Poly’s architecture department unveiled their three-dimensional models of “A New Library for the Information Age” at the San Luis Obispo public library on Tuesday.

Stemming from the idea that books and other print media are heading for a massive transformation from paper to digital, juniors in Eric Nulman’s fall 2007 architecture design class were challenged to come up with a thesis and model of a library to accommodate that future.

The Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was chosen as the site for the design precisely because it presents a new scenario for a library of the 21st century.

Nulman said that at first it was hard for students to let go of their preconceived library ideas. “I wanted them to develop their own analysis, not just recreate the SLO County Library,” he said. “They really had to think about what a library is and how digital media is going to be distributed. It was hard, but it allowed them to start designing from scratch.”

Kennedy Library Dean Michael Miller provided much of the background information on libraries for Nulman’s class last quarter.

“Clearly, all academic-based information is going digital,” he explained. “All of the science and engineering disciplines, at least, are switching their textbooks and lecture information over to digital. I’d say they’re about 90 percent there already. The humanities are still more reliant on paper books today, but I expect that’s going to change very fast too.

“What it really comes down to is the physics of light coming off of paper,” Miller continued. “Until we have a portable device with a large enough screen of a high enough quality that people would rather read off of, books are not going to be completely obsolete. But that’s just waiting for the technology to get here, and within the next few years it will, and then it’s not going to be one book, it can be hundreds of books on that mobile device.”

Standing over his model of a building of flowing cubes, architecture student O-Chong Kwon said the new digital age places less design constraints on architects. “Historically, libraries need a big space, like analog technology,” Kwon said. “But now that everything is getting smaller with digital technology, they require less space, which gives us more room to be flexible and creative.”

Attendance at Tuesday’s event was high as architecture enthusiasts and curious library goers drifted through the exhibit. Wide-eyed children with checked-out books still underarm peered shyly at the models sitting on the table, while gray-haired seniors crowded around the young architects, eager to ask questions.

“Our thesis was about bringing the community together,” said architecture sophomore Laura Anne Male. “Everything is about information nowadays and it’s about sharing information.” Her model incorporated an entrance at either end of the library, where patrons enter down a set of stairs and gather at “information stacks” in the center of the building.

“I came to think of it kind of like a fast food place,” explained architecture student Hochung Kim, pointing out the compressed spaces in his model. “You won’t have time to sit down in the library and read, you’ll just grab your book and get out.”

Terwall’s approach – a large, open floor building with a massive glass atrium inside – was designed to accommodate both quiet readers and bustling travelers in the airport. “People won’t be checking out a book, so it definitely helps to forget about what a library is now,” he explained.

Nulman, a Cal Poly architecture graduate who earned his master’s at Harvard University, hopes to continue exploring other aspects of transforming traditional architecture with other classes. This quarter, his students are working on similar projects to create future courtrooms.

Library staff and supporters hope that the Libraries of the Future event will spurn greater public discussion about what makes an ideal library. Tuesday’s event was a follow-up to the “Great Expectations” library summit held in Atascadero in November, where students presented the preliminary designs for their future libraries. A series of community meetings where the public can offer input about future library developments is scheduled from now through March.

Miller seemed impressed by the creative models sitting on the tables, and wandered from one to the next, asking students questions.

“It’s been fun to see what their ideas are … as you can see they run from the traditional approach to the avant-garde,” Miller said. “It’s provided me with a lot of food for thought and a lot of hope for where libraries are going in the new information age.”

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