Professor Bill Sherman, director of the Warburg Institute, introduces a cluster of essays on the future of libraries.

The library is dead, long live the library. At once in vogue and under threat, libraries are under pressure as never before.

Here in Britain, budget cuts in local government and new investment in digital resources have led to the widespread reduction of library services. CIPFA’s 2019 survey found that nearly 20 per cent of Britain’s public libraries had closed since 2010, thanks to a 40 per cent drop in salaried librarians. UK Research and Innovation’s recent Landscape Analysis of the UK’s research infrastructure, for its part, sees book-stacks giving way to digital databases, while libraries are mentioned only twice in the 168-page companion report – and then only in connection with ‘preserving heritage.’

And yet, well into the age of the Kindle, interest in physical books shows no sign of waning. Moreover, dramatic new libraries by leading architects have served as research centres, public hubs and even tourist attractions in countries as diverse as Canada, Qatar and China. Here at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, our libraries are flourishing, and there are major capital transformation projects underway at my own institute as well as the university’s flagship library in Senate House.

As director of an institution that has been called ‘The World’s Weirdest Library’ (by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik) and ‘One of 20 Libraries that Changed the World’ (by the Open Education Database), such challenges and opportunities are always on my mind. As we work on the Warburg Renaissance – the £14.5m project that will secure and shape the future of the Warburg Institute – I have drawn on the work of a wide range of colleagues (librarians, architects and experts in digital humanities).

It’s a pleasure to share some of their perspectives here. In our ‘Long Read’ article, De-silting’ libraries – releasing space to future-proof for the digital age, Elizabeth Flower from Haworth Tompkins, the architectural practice working on the Warburg Institute’s transformation project, explains what goes into designing a library today, while in Books and buildings, if not big data, the Durning-Lawrence Library, Dr Karen Attar, rare book librarian at Senate House Library, considers the move of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s library from his home in Carlton House to Senate House

Dr Richard Gartner, Warburg’s digital librarian, shows how metadata serves as an information architecture in giving new access to old books and images in his article, Metadata: giving new access to old books and images, and in Research libraries as sites of collaboration, Jane Winters, the School of Advanced Study’s professor of digital humanities and director of the new Digital Humanities Research Hub, describes her work on a joint report by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Research Libraries UK on libraries as sites of collaboration.

Cover image: Warburg Library