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When libraries are also tourist draws

To stay relevant in the digital age, libraries are being re-invented into modern community spaces - a far cry from the book depots of yore.

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Libraries positioning themselves for a younger, more tech-savvy generation include China’s Tianjin Binhai Library with its ultra-modern architecture.

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Libraries positioning themselves for a younger, more tech-savvy generation include Finland’s Helsinki Central Library named “Oodi”.

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Libraries positioning themselves for a younger, more tech-savvy generation include artist’s impression of Norway’s upcoming branch of its Deichman public library system.

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Libraries positioning themselves for a younger, more tech-savvy generation include Canada’s Calgary Central Library.

New York

ABOUT a decade ago, libraries across the world faced a dilemma. Their vital functions - to supply books and access to information for the public - were being replaced by Amazon, e-books and public WiFi.

To fight for their survival, said Loida Garcia-Febo, president of the American Library Association, libraries tried to determine what other role they could play.

"They invented these amazing new initiatives that are finally launching now," she said. It took them this long to raise money and build them.

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In the past few years, dozens of new high-profile libraries have opened across the world. And they certainly do not resemble the book-repository vision of libraries from the past. To attract visitors from home and abroad, many libraries have advanced, even quirky amenities. They have rooftop gardens, public parks, verandahs, play spaces, teen centres, movie theatres, gaming rooms, art galleries, restaurants - and more.

The new library in Aarhus, Denmark, has a massive gong that rings whenever a mother in a nearby hospital gives birth. Ms Garcia-Febo knows of multiple libraries offering free work space for growing numbers of entrepreneurs. These are not just alternatives to coffee shops, but spaces for people to pull out their laptops and work. The libraries have fancy meeting rooms for them to meet with potential clients, business librarians who can help them solve their financial challenges, and classes to teach them vital skills. At no cost, it's a much cheaper option than spending hundreds of dollars for a desk at WeWork.

Libraries are supplying the public with other features they may not have at home. Twenty years ago that was books. Now it's expensive new technology such as 3D printers, laser cutters and broadcasting studios for podcasts and movies. Visitors are going to libraries to try before they buy. Other people just want to play with something that may not ever be able to afford.

Meeting diverse needs requires a sophisticated building, and many libraries are employing the world's best architects to create showstopping designs. The new buildings are transforming skylines, going viral on social media and attracting tourists from all over the world. For many of these libraries, the books are overshadowed by other amenities.

Here's a look at some of the world's newest and most creative libraries.

Helsinki, Finland

On Dec 6, 2018, Finland celebrated its 101st anniversary of independence from Russia. One day before, the Finns received an anniversary present: a new central library named Oodi.

The library's facade is made almost entirely of spruce, sourced from Finland. It has steel and glass structures mixed in, creating a soft, inviting look. The Helsinki government allocated 68 million euros (S$105.5 million) to the project as well as a prime spot opposite the Finnish Parliament (the federal government provided 30 million euros more). A local firm, ALA Architects, won the commission over 543 other competitors.

Only one third of the 185,000-square-foot space is allocated to books (transported by specially designed robots); the rest is community space designed for meeting and doing. At the "book heaven" on the top floor, visitors sprawl out among potted trees and on specially commissioned wool carpets.

Dublin, Ireland

On St Stephen's Green, the Central Park of Dublin, there are three grand Georgian buildings, one of which was built by architect Richard Cassels (also known as Richard Castle) in the 1700s. Behind them are lush Victorian gardens that open up to more secret oases. One has a 200-year-old strawberry tree.

These structures were previously the original home of the University College Dublin, where many of Ireland's most famous writers studied. On Sept 20, they will be open to the public for the first time, as home to the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI).

Visitors will be able to see the old physics theatre where James Joyce set a chapter of his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the original print of Ulysses, famously called "copy number 1".

The bedroom of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins is still intact and will be available for viewing. Private letters from Joyce have been pulled out of storage for display.

Calgary, Canada

Calgary's New Central Library has a train running through it, as the site was designed to accommodate an active Light Rail Transit Line that already existed. The lobby is an arched bridge that lets locomotives go under it, and in "living rooms" patrons can sit on swirly chairs and watch them zoom by all day. The library, which opened last November, was built to replace the existing downtown branch.

The library goes from "fun" to "serious" as visitors ascend the spiral staircase. On lower floors there are two cafes, a teen centre, a children's space and a 320-seat theatre. The highest floor is the Great Reading Room, a more traditional library space surrounded by wooden planks.

Doha, Qatar

Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the Qatar National Library, which opened in April 2018, is all about symbolism, a physical representation of the country's reverence for learning. The entry way is full of stacks housing almost one million books, including 137,000 for children and 35,000 for teens.

"The way they are built on an incline, it looks like they are coming out of the floor," said Sohair Wastawy, the library's executive director. "It elevates the books and the knowledge people are looking for." The 72-foot-tall ceiling is made entirely of glass, drilling home the message that light is essential to learning. The Heritage Library, composed of 11 rooms full of objects significant to Qatar and the region, is sunk 20 feet into the ground; it looks like an excavation site.

"The symbolism is that heritage is the root of the nation, the root of the land," Mr Wastawy said. What the library has in looks it also has in programming. Every month the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra performs for the public for free. This is only one of the 80 to 90 free events the library holds monthly.

Tianjin, China

The Tianjin Binhai Library was built for practical purposes, to serve the Binhai New Area, which was formed in 2009 by the merger of three districts of Tianjin, a port city in north-eastern China.

It opened in October 2017 and has everything you would expect from a library: reading rooms, learning spaces, book storage and a large archive. But the majority of guests don't go there to utilise the services. They visit from all over the world to see the fantastical architecture created by the Dutch firm MVRDV and local architects from the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute.

"I think for the first week the library had around 10,000 visitors per day," said Winy Maas, a founding partner with MVRDV and the architect responsible for the library. "People were lining up in the street to enter."

The 363,000-square-foot space is painted floor to ceiling in pure white. In the middle of the space is a spherical auditorium nicknamed "the eye". Around it are undulating floor-to-ceiling shelves that form waves. On the lower levels there are shelves with real books. On the upper levels the shelves contain aluminium plates with paintings of books on them, due in part to fire regulations.

Staircases are incorporated into the bookshelves: It's a popular place for selfies and Instagram posts. The space also has two rooftop decks offering views of the surrounding area. More traditional parts of the library are found to the side and below the attention-grabbing lobby.

Austin, Texas

The Central Library in Austin opened its doors on October 2017 with the Texas belief that bigger is always better. With six floors and 200,000-square-feet of space, it is twice the size of the former Old Faulk Central Library and located less than 1km away.

The library sits next to Shoal Creek and Lady Bird Lake, areas of natural beauty. Many amenities take advantage of the location by focusing on the outdoors. "The design gives you a sense of peace," said Ms Garcia-Febo, the library association president who recently visited the space. "It is very helpful for communities to have these spaces where they can feel peace."

Oslo, Norway

Construction of a new main branch of Deichman, Oslo's public library, is currently under way in the newly established neighbourhood of Bjorvika. Scheduled to open in the spring of 2020, it will serve as a public landmark, time capsule and entertainment hub.

This library is designed to see and be seen. Large, open entrances will be placed on the east, west, and south sides to welcome visitors from many directions.

At night, the library will change colours to reflect the events taking place that evening. Viewing areas inside the library will offer spectacular views of Oslo, the fjord, and the city's green, rolling hills. NYTIMES