Autonomous Libraries

A network of autonomous, community-run, digital-physical hybrid knowledge spaces.

Autonomous Libraries (AL) is a new concept for a new form of libraries, or in a broader context: networked knowledge spaces. In this concept, we redefine and rebuild the library from the ground up, what they mean, and what they are made of. Today and in the coming future.

With AL, we are moving away from the traditional form of the library. Instead of having one big building in one place of a city, we introduce a distributed model. Where the library, or knowledge space, is not bound to one particular location and can be (physically) replicated throughout public space.

To achieve this distributed network of interconnected spaces each Autonomous Library is self-managed and partially community-run. Introducing innovative new ways of how itself and its users deal with information.

# Changing landscapes

Today, the practices of knowledge production and sharing are intensely conditioned by digital technology. Cognitive forms of work dominate the sphere of labor in general. As a result, the spaces of libraries have become places hard to define. We often see libraries as conventional reading rooms or workstations.

We see another concurrent development which is common spaces such as coffeehouses, train stations, and retail shops increasingly being used as a study, reading, or working room. This simultaneous development of the changing landscape in the knowledge spaces of both the library and the private space often removes the distinction between the two.

Here our problem starts. With a distinction loss between spaces of knowledge preservation and production. The question arises how would we build a stronger, resilient, knowledge space that is flexible enough to incorporate new modes of knowledge production and distribution?

People studying and working in a coffeehouse.

# Fluid layers of knowledge

How do we deal with knowledge? Most of it happens through tapping our fingers on plastic while fixing our eyes on a screen. Looking at libraries and universities we think those spaces have a good start with bringing spatiality to the act of producing knowledge. However, what those spaces are lacking is providing an interface that takes new, digital, working methods into account.

With our current digital work ethos, we see a great surge in note-making, saving found material and of course, ctrl+c / ctrl+v is everyone's fastest reflex. Think of platforms like or Tumblr and applications like Notion or Coda. Knowledge production happens in so many more – interesting – ways now, with the aid of the internet and advancing applications. Copy-pasting, mixing-merging, and appropriating chunks of different files from different sources. We think this should be an integral part of future knowledge spaces.

We think the nested nature of digital information should be extended to physical objects as well. Think of a book for example. At face value seemingly a singular object that just sits on a bookshelf. However, invisibly sticking to this particular book are countless people that have been inspired by it, or that have used it for studying and research, or have just some thoughts on it. A book, and any work of knowledge for that matter, is a source of information that spawns endless new information. Information that should be allowed to be connected with that original book.

In Autonomous Libraries, we take the fluid and layered nature of digital information as the default and want to apply this to all its resources. As we are able to copy-paste, attach, and annotate digital files, we should be able to do so with physical documents. Knowledge production then possibly accounts for the distribution of knowledge as well.

Conceptual sketch of information layers in this book

To realize these modes of production and distribution AL should manage its resources very differently. In general, the management of knowledge resources is an ever-changing act. Most of us work with digital files and documents. These come with their own issues about authorship, origin, and file formats. When it comes to legacy resources, however, things get physical and those present a whole different set of problems to account for.

The increasing amount of media and information types is unavoidable and, we think, desirable. Yet the way different media – both physical and digital – currently are in their distinct environments is undesirable and even limits us, the users.

For AL to be a resilient model for future knowledge spaces it needs to solve these issues by introducing a physical-digital hybrid environment. A place where physical resources can be used with digital interfaces and vice-versa. going beyond giving access to and providing storage for resources as done by traditional libraries. Autonomous Libraries need to provide a place where there's a true integration of multiple media – physical and digital – in a dedicated space and using a spatial interface.

Drawing illustrating various interfaces and resources being connected both physical and digital.

In this hybrid space of physical and digital resources that can be used, edited, and consumed interchangeably. Digital resources can be enhanced with meaningful tactile surfaces while physical resources can be enhanced.

This brings us back to the fluid layers of information. The hybrid environment allows us to interact and use all the fluid layers of information. One of the most interesting is AL's annotation feature. Which does precisely what we described earlier: attaching thoughts, documents, images, and more to specific physical resources. Either attach it to the full book, a particular page, an image, or a single sentence. And these annotations can be made public or shared between users. A new intuitive annotation method that preserves and promotes meaningfully linked layers of information.

Prototype of our mobile app Field showing annotation flow. It recognizes content to which the user can add text, images, documents, or links. Attaching new information to existing physical information.

# Beyond consumption

Another key aspect we need to address is the interface of our knowledge spaces. In the previous section, we talked about the fluid layers of knowledge and how we have developed AL with that approach in mind. To accommodate for those functionalities we need advanced intuitive interfaces.

Currently, we navigate our personal digital archives (computer folders) using file browsers and organize our digital files by folders within folders. At the same time, we traverse the web using search engines and storing possibly our favorite ones in some form of bookmarks. "Windows upon windows of tabs and tabs, folders within folders of Untitled(1). Never-ending, nebulous clutter." To quote Jason Yuan talking about how the desktop metaphor must die. The digital spaces in which we interact with knowledge are amazingly rigid and flat. It doesn't allow for much flexibility or intuition. This rigid flat approach sits in the way for intuitive exploration, multidimensional relations between different documents and different paradigms even (web and local).

A common sight in our desktop-inspired world.

# Hybrid interface

Flexibility and intuition are crucial for us to work effectively and to focus our cognitive efforts on the task at hand rather than dealing with understanding the interface. For the physical spaces in which we interact with knowledge, such as libraries, the physical interface (architecture) also seems to rely on strict organization. Yet an advantage we see in physical spaces is that we, as 3-dimensional beings, can move around freely. This free movement is meaningful and we should harness this in a meaningful way.

Movement is key when it comes to understanding space, be it physical or digital. Movement is how we explore and how we show intention. We argue that movement should be a key aspect around which interfaces should be designed. When we say movement we mean literal physical movement. Peripheral devices such as keyboards, mouses, and touchscreens can be useful for very specific use cases but shouldn't be used as controllers of movement. They are indirect, a proxy for dumb interfaces.

Countering these issues, we've developed a hybrid physical-digital interface. With this hybrid interface, we achieve both the enhanced features described in the previous section as the aims described in this section of meaningful intuitive exploration. Movement, and with that intention, are enhanced as they become the controls of how to interact with this hybrid interface.

Detecting humans, their gestures, their actions, the objects they are holding, and even the actions they are doing with those objects they are holding. Completely removing the need for any peripheral device. Allowing you to move freely and interact with physical objects while getting meaningful and intentional responses from a digital interface. With this setup, we can keep the meaningfulness of physical space and physical objects while enhancing those with digital functionalities.

Interface being controlled by actions, gestures, and object-actions.

# A matter of perspective

Coming back to our current desktop reality, its rigidness does more than simply prevent intuitive flow. It actively rejects meaningful connections to be visible between files or applications. The fluid layered nature of knowledge stays hidden with our current interfaces.

Especially when it comes to navigating knowledge spaces, searching for files, or browsing through books, this fluid layered nature should be visible, traversable, and presented so that the context of a work of knowledge becomes visible and interactable.

Diagram showing 4 common navigation scenarios to find an item, from left to right: Known – A knows how to find B; Explorative – A finds D through B and C; Unknown – A doesn't know B exists; Re-finding – A can re-find B through bookmark or wishlist.

Services such as Spotify and Youtube actively look at what you are consuming to push for recommendations based on what you are consuming. Although this is useful we feel this should be reflected in the interface entirely. And not just based on a user's profile but based on a range of parameters. What we are talking about is context. The context of a particular song or video either from the perspective of a user's profile or potentially any other perspective.

Context is relative, meaning it will be different depending on the perspective you are taking. A book's closely related surroundings will change depending on if you are looking at its context from a time, genre, topic or geographical perspective. And precisely that is what's so great about context, it gives the freedom of movement and control to the user, stimulating exploration.

For these reasons, context is deeply integrated into AL's interface. Providing a better method of navigation and a sense of place for the user with regards to knowledge resources. When a person walks up to a screen inside an AL with a book in their hand it will show that book with its context around it. Showing connections to both other resources in the AL as ones outside it, the web for instance.

Our Knowledge Recognition API showing similar assets based on query.

Impression drawing of showing the context of a book when you pick it up.

# Multiple locations

As the distinction between libraries and coffeehouses is disappearing in terms of how they are used they don't seem to embrace this fact. Holding on to the status quo, which is strictly keeping everything in one place. But just as how coffee is available within every library should the library be available within (almost) every coffeehouse.

Autonomous Libraries are intended to be deployed at multiple locations throughout a city. They're not limited to any location and can be standalone in a park or brought under the roof in a coffeehouse or university. An important benefit of having multiple AL in a city is that they are non-commercial. Countering the current cityscape that is shaped by brands and commerce by introducing non-commercial spaces that people can enjoy freely as they like.

Schematic drawing of various AL throughout a city.

Autonomous Libraries in a train station and on a square in the city.

# Deploying where needed

Although AL is a concept and, intentionally, lacking any design we have had to come up with an approach for dealing with various spatial environments. Together with Studio Helioripple (Amin Bahrami) we've developed a set of modular wall components which are used for making unique modular configurations.

We made these walls as modular components to make them easy to adapt to any environment or need. Having these walls as building blocks give us many options to try out in terms of expandability. Each wall can be generated following different criteria depending on a location or requirement. Combining different walls create designated areas in which different activities can take place.

Generated modular walls can be created following different criteria depending on location or other requirements.

Modular configurations are created with several wall components, creating infinite variations. Each variation answers different needs and requirements as different locations and activities demand it. An AL in a park would have a very different situation to deal with than for example one fitted inside a coffeehouse. In turn, students in a university will demand different spatial requirements than casual book readers.

An Autonomous Library is composed of a set of generated modular walls. Walls are colored separately.

To see where AL would have the most impact or be the most interesting we've defined 3 use cases that are very different from one another. In each use case, AL answers different needs and functions (from the user's perspective) differently.

# The coffeehouse

The coffeehouse is a popular place to be working, studying, or reading. It has become a great place to enjoy productivity while being surrounded by other people and good coffee. A relaxed and inviting environment. With AL we can capitalize on this phenomenon and create an improved environment.

Working or studying at a coffeehouse is great but currently has several drawbacks. These are that on the one hand, the business itself doesn't like the mix of leisure and work. For them, a full table with laptops is not a great sight. Usually, because it tends to scare off people who are just looking for a cozy place to drink coffee. Other issues for the customers can be noise-related and space not optimized for working.

When introducing AL in the coffeehouse we immediately solve the issue of having to mix leisure people and working people. Although still possible, working inside or closely towards the AL structure would be much better. The coffeehouse becomes a spectrum of naturally sorted intentions, from leisure to work.

Additionally to the organizational benefit, there are also many new features and possibilities available in this coffeehouse with AL inside. First of all, this now has become a great and intuitive place for working by yourself and collaborating with others. Easily using the hybrid interfaces to work on shared documents. Secondly, this is now another access point to connect with the public library or a university's library bringing a lot of resources to the coffeehouse.

# The square

A square in a city is a crucial spot where different types of infrastructure cross. Some squares are big, others small but they always bring together people. Commuters, shoppers, strollers, and many others. The square is in many cities where life takes place with street food, cafés, and shops surrounding it.

Squares have historically always been centers where life takes place, be it markets or just open space for people to enjoy. Some squares are known for their importance when it comes to gathering people, marches, rallies, and celebrations. These places are still very important today but they feel old when it comes to their functionality in our current modern day. People meet, gather, and celebrate mostly through media today. Squares should embrace this and reflect this. With AL on a square, there's a shared place where people can again come together physically while also being connected to our digital life.

By placing Autonomous Libraries on squares we are introducing non-commercial spaces that are accessible to everyone. This has the potential to invite neighborhoods to come together, have reading clubs, and people enjoy media with each other. Especially in the Netherlands most public space is economically focused. Roads for transport and buildings are mainly commercial spaces. Shared common space is scarce and it's a loss. We need more freely accessible space and with AL we go even further. We think knowledge spaces should be part of the public space.

Having AL on squares is also a great potential for holding exhibitions, meetings, events, and more. Space where people can come together for themselves or meet up. Sharing ideas and knowledge.

# The train station

These busy ports have a huge number of people flowing through them. Many of us spend some (if not too much) time daily commuting to work and possibly on the weekends when traveling. Waiting time is unavoidable and we are seeing more stations having dedicated spaces to accommodate people while waiting. Cafés, coffeehouses, meeting rooms, and working spaces are popping up as key features of the train station.

Having AL inside a train station allows people to work, explore and consume different types of information. Be it reading a book, listening to a podcast, or catching up on news. Imagine your traveling each day through the same station, having a place where you can pick up and bring back books can be a great way to catch up on reading. At the same time, train stations are easy to get to so they are great for people to meet, collaborate and share information.

# Distributed chunks

Having introduced these use cases think of them as existing side-by-side within one city, interconnected and accessible. Thinking of this scenario brings us to a new possibility that becomes possible through Autonomous Libraries. These libraries hold books and people can pick those up, which will be detected by the hybrid interface. In the same way, AL will do the lending process automatically, knowing who holds which book and potentially take them with them for reading.

While physical books are and will remain valuable, taking them with you can be burdensome. Seeing the hybrid nature of AL we don't think the physical container is even needed to be taken with you outside of an AL. Using the book can start with the physical book but once the person wants to leave the AL it could be continued on their personal device. A continuation of using the book. This feature we call Continuous Reading.

Imagine being at the AL on the train station and you come across a book that catches your attention. While you just got started reading you see you have to go to catch your train. You leave the book inside the AL and instead copy the book to your preferred device. Going even further it becomes possible to only copy the part of the book that you are interested in, just a chapter or maybe 3? This introduces whole new flexibility when it comes to reading.

Prototype of our mobile app Field showing the continuous reading flow.

# Self-managed and community-driven

As the name suggests, Autonomous Libraries are autonomous. They don't require human management. This is outsourced to software. The entire process of inventory management and the lending process becomes fully automated. There's even no scanning required for the lending process. The combination of advanced software managing the inventory with the advanced interface will take care of these processes.

Having AL be autonomous and capable of managing themselves makes them great for deploying at places that are currently without any library of knowledge infrastructure. In the Netherlands, libraries are disappearing from smaller villages and towns. With AL any group of people can deploy and run a library. Once deployed it becomes a node in the distributed network of AL, with no action or intervention required from any sort of host or organization.

Although we've been talking a lot about having traditional library assets inside of AL, an AL can be set up by any group of people with their own shared resources. The implementation of a single AL can be specific to its location. Be it a neighborhood running their AL with their own shared books or a University having several AL spread around campus with scientific libraries from various disciplines.

We firmly believe giving people full control over their shared knowledge is the way forward. A library of knowledge resources should belong to everyone, should be accessible to everyone, and should be in sight of everyone. This will strengthen the sense of community and help with education. Radiating knowledge and common space.

# Looking ahead

Autonomous Libraries answer the need for a space that provides an interface for the consumption, production, and sharing of knowledge. A space that isn’t limited in its location and can be accessed at multiple points within the public, commercial and educational sphere. One that is resilient and future-proof while incorporating new and existing modes of knowledge production and distribution.

Autonomous Libraries would involve communities and small businesses creating local knowledge-sharing networks, neighborhood libraries, and other types of knowledge spaces. This community-driven, distributed approach we deem necessary for it to work for everyone. Countering the current cityscape that is shaped by brands and commerce by introducing non-commercial spaces in which people can enjoy freely as they like.

Our plans, for AL, are to find funding. We want to continue this research and extend it with prototypes. Building functional prototypes to test them at real locations. Crucial steps for it to develop into a workable plan.

For any interest, remark, or question about Autonomous Libraries feel free to contact us.


  • Amir Houieh

    Co-founder and developer

  • Martijn de Heer

    Co-founder and designer

  • Studio Helioripple

    Architect (Amin Bahrami)