Public Libraries Nourishing the Mind

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I've been thinking a lot about what ought to be architecturally designed into public library spaces in the future. As physical books play a lesser role, we can rethink the best use of library space.

Recall, the mission of public libraries is to nourish the mind. As it happens, the mind lives within the human body. When the human body gets hungry, it often leaves the library. In a knowledge economy, we can't let that happen. We need all brains on deck, so to speak. To nourish the mind, you've got to nourish the body. When you're hungry, your mind starts wandering. Soon after, your body starts wandering.

Libraries sometimes deal with this conundrum of food availability by setting up a snack machine in a hall outside the library. Snack machines are not food, though. Snacks, by definition, are nonnourishing. They defer hunger cravings by thirty minutes or an hour, but they do not nourish the body in any real way.

So public libraries ought to have some kind of cafeteria with a selection of healthy, affordable, nourishing foods: foods that cater to different people's dietary needs. Whether you're allergic to dairy or allergic to wheat should not be a deterrent to you spending time at the library. If you're on a low-sodium or low-potassium diet, we want you at the library just as much as we want anyone else.

A small cafeteria, adjacent to the library, is just the starting point, though. That cafeteria should have attached to it a public kitchen – a place where cooking experimentation can take place. Remember the “culinary arts” from school? If art belongs in a library, then maybe culinary art belongs in a library, too. People need to learn how to eat healthier, and if libraries are to be a place where you go to learn things, then you ought to be able to learn to cook at a library.

Here in the northern hemisphere, that public kitchen ought be situated at the south side of the library building. Why? So that solar cookers can be used to cook rice and other food for the cafeteria. And at all times experimentation with recipes should be taking place in a public kitchen, for creativity is at the very heart of the public library. Want a delicious nondairy smoothie made with frozen bananas and rice beverage? Make it for yourself in the public kitchen using the bicycle-powered blender set up for that purpose. Then go back to the library and read some more or write some more or make some more or teach some more or compose some more or draw some more. You do not need to leave the library unless you can think of a better use of your time.

Adjacent to the public library is a community garden where vegetables grow. For libraries that are constrained for space, the community garden can be designed into the roof of the building. So you've been tasked with organizing the food for a library event? The radishes can be pulled right from the community garden, and the hummus can be made in the bicycle-powered food processor in the public kitchen. You get the picture. Vibrancy. All interconnected. Whole. Sensible. Self-sufficient. Thoughtful.

Whoever could imagine that libraries could be thoughtful? They can be if we want them to be.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

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