Today, a public library is so much more than a mere repository for a physical collection. The staid institution marked by rows of dark stacks and a bespectacled librarian with a single digit poised mid-shush is being replaced with light-filled, dynamic spaces intended for a multitude of uses. Yes, there are still quiet areas for study and research; yes, there are still stacks of books and periodicals. But there are also coffee shops and cafés, play areas and computer labs, and community rooms for gatherings of all types. The evolution of print into digital media explains part of the library’s transformation—but not all of it. Cultural shifts in the way we work, learn, and play are also influencing the library’s physical design. As a result, more is being asked of this civic structure.

Take the Surrey City Centre Library designed by Bing Thom Architects that opened last year. Located in a major suburb outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, the library is the hub of a new downtown and the first in a series of planned civic buildings, including a new city hall. The library is meant to be a locus for the sprawling suburb and a place for its nearly 500,000 citizens to gather. “They decided the library would be a great institution to show that this is the center of town,” says Michael Heeney, a principal and executive director at Bing Thom Architects.

Within its 82,000 square feet, the Surrey City Centre Library boasts a large children’s library, more than 80 public computers, Wi-Fi, a coffee shop, and quiet rooms for individual work as well as meeting spaces for larger groups. The building uses the tight urban lot to its benefit, creating different scales of space that move from a grand entrance and reading room capable of hosting large events to rooms with lower-height ceilings for stacks and small, private study rooms. “As more people live downtown in smaller spaces and as real estate gets more expensive, the library is becoming this important space,” Heeney says. “If the library of the ’90s was all about books, the library of today is all about space.”

Bing Thom embraced a novel approach to glean the program for this library. Because the project was funded by government stimulus dollars, it needed to be completed in under 20 months (similar to the ambitious time caps placed on stimulus dollars in the U.S.). The architects couldn’t convene all the usual public meetings, so they took to social media: The designers engaged the public through social media and a blog to ask what people wanted from the library. The blog got up to 6,000 hits per month at the height of the design process, and the responses were illuminating: Some said they worked from home and would use the library as an office. Others home-schooled and needed a place to bring children for quiet study or tutoring. Some asked for flexible furniture. “People were totally into furniture,” Heeney says. (The interior is now outfitted in places with beanbag and hammock chairs and other mobile pieces.)

While the types of activities inside the library may be expanding, the size of the library is not. “The enormous central library is probably a thing of the past,” Heeney says. With a collaborative process of loaning resources between regional libraries, no single library must fulfill every need, he says. Also, smaller libraries embedded in communities are important to creating walkable neighborhoods. “I was talking to an older couple looking to retire, and within a 15-minute walk they wanted a grocery store and a library,” Heeney says.

The library as neighborhood amenity isn’t unique to Canada. For years, Washington, D.C., went without new public libraries. And despite its Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed central library, the system did not offer much to recommend itself. But a recent spate of buildings reflects many of the market forces influencing design.

Opened in January 2011, the Tenley-Friendship Library is a LEED Gold–certified, 21,472-square-foot space sandwiched in a busy commercial strip in Washington, D.C. Because of the small site, Zena K. Howard, AIA, principal at the Freelon Group, said that the firm needed to design a two-story solution with children’s programming on the first floor and adult reading rooms above. And because it’s located in a neighborhood with lots of children, the architects had to think about parking. Stroller parking, that is. “There are lots of professionals with young children who walk to the nearby Whole Foods or stop and get some coffee and bring it into the library,” Howard says. “Double-stroller parking was a huge deal.”

Howard agrees that libraries are not increasing in overall size. Rather, they are becoming savvier about how to use space inside and, in particular, how to display books and DVDs. She says that libraries now compete with private-sector businesses such as Barnes & Noble and Starbucks—which changes how a library works. “They are becoming more destination places for people to come and commune and less about going someplace to be isolated,” she says.

Individual study rooms for one or two people are another design element being used in today’s libraries—a good solution for home-schooled children. The rooms average about 9 by 7 feet, according to Howard, and usually include Wi-Fi and a place to plug in a laptop.

Sustainability is another element driving library design. The 2010 Anacostia Library, another project by the Freelon Group for the District of Columbia Public Library system, recently earned LEED Gold certification. Here, the 22,348-square-foot library is embedded in a community of single-family homes and multifamily apartments. The architects preserved much of the existing landscape while honoring the residential scale of the surrounding neighborhood. The library sits back from the edge of the site, creating a greenspace border, and uses existing oak trees for shading. A bioretention area mitigates water pollution to the Anacostia River. Inside, advances in daylighting, temperature and humidity control, and lighting make for a bright and airy interior without compromising the library collection.

Integrating a library into the natural world was also a primary goal of the White Tank Branch Library and Nature Center in Waddell, Ariz. Located at the entrance of a regional park with 4,000-foot peaks and 25 miles of hiking trails, this may be the only library housing rattlesnakes and Gila monsters along with books and magazines. The 29,000-square-foot structure, designed by DWL Architects + Planners in 2010, is a cost-saving partnership between the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department and the county library department.

White Tank is also one of the few LEED Platinum libraries in the country—no small feat, considering its location in a desert known for 115 F summer days and breathtaking thunderstorms. The architects stretched the project budget by helping to secure a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a solar array on the roof. That, coupled with other energy-saving techniques such as insulation, reflective roofing, light sensors, and shading, reduces energy consumption by 50 percent beyond ASHRAE 90.1-2004—or about $25,000 a year, according to DWL associate Adam Sprenger, AIA. The architects also salvaged every saguaro cactus on the property (about 50 of them) and kept them in a nursery before replanting them back on the site.

Taking advantage of abundant views of nature was a design priority for White Tank. A large central room with panoramic windows—each bay includes a photosensor for automatic solar shading—looks out on the mountains while private reading niches are tucked into the periphery. “We intentionally brought the stacks down low and spaced them wider because it was more about enjoying nature and less about the collection,” Sprenger says.

Library as nature preserve? “The library used to be all about books,” Sprenger says. “But it’s not anymore.”