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There is a teen lounge with Xbox gaming consoles and a big-screen TV, complete with chairs that look like oversized hammocks to accommodate the favoured semi-sprawl of the adolescent set.

In another area, a seniors' lounge with more traditional furniture next to a fireplace. A coffee shop. A long countertop for people who want to plug in their laptops.

Oh yes, and books.

After all, this is a library – Surrey's new central library, to be precise. But its 150,000 books will take up just half of the available space, the most obvious sign of the accelerating transformation of the library in the 21st century.

"Libraries are not book warehouses anymore, they are active places to find inspiration or knowledge," says Surrey's chief librarian, Beth Barlow. As a result, Surrey's new library, slated to open next month, has scampered even further down the path that many public libraries have headed toward in recent years: community meeting ground and social hub.

"It's becoming that third place," says Ms. Barlow's deputy, Melanie Houlden, talking about the idea popularized by American writer Ray Oldenburg. His 1989 book The Great Good Place argued that "third places" – cafés, barber shops and bookstores, where people gather and talk separate from where they live or where they work – are the foundations of civil society.

Surrey is not alone in that focus on giving less space to books. Diana Guinn, the Vancouver Public Library's director of neighbourhood and youth resources, says the new Riley Park Library, at the former Olympic curling rink, had more people-space built in than previous branches. The future Strathcona branch, just being planned now, will have more, including a "living room" for people to sit and read. "We're trying to make sure that people have enough space just to hang out."

All this sounds lovely, but poses the question for librarians, library users and the people who design the spaces for this place that also has books: what is a library? Is it a place to take out War and Peace? Or a place to entice teenagers with World of Warcraft, in the hopes they'll move on to Tolstoy?

There has always been a tension about the function of libraries, says Eric Meyers, a professor at the University of British Columbia's school of library, archival and information studies. Some have seen libraries mainly as book depositories, the places that preserve print, much as medieval monks preserved manuscripts for hundreds of years from the Greek and Roman classical eras – a dedicated act of curation that eventually gave birth to the Renaissance. Others have seen them primarily as places that teach people how to access information.

The Internet and Google have shifted the balance. "What has brought the debate to the fore is the plethora of information people can get outside the library," says Mr. Meyers. "It put the libraries back on their heels and they were forced to re-envision themselves."

If information is everywhere, then the library's function as a community centre and "knowledge-building space" has become the unique thing it could offer.

Chapters, with its comfy chairs and compelling book displays, was another prod to librarians about the possibilities for luring people to books, adds Ms. Houlden.

That doesn't make everyone happy. People from American writer Nicholson Baker to local book lovers have been outraged at the way libraries have dumped – often literally – large collections of newspapers, journals and books that simply hadn't been taken out for a while to make room for hanging-out space, video-game collections, and computer stations. (The Vancouver Public Library got rid of 128,000 print items in 2010.)

Mr. Meyers, a self-confessed lover of books on paper, says the trick for libraries is to figure out which print resources their community is using heavily, and to stock those, while ensuring that less-used but still valuable books and journals are preserved at one institution that is available to all. "What you decide to stock shouldn't just be based on 'I love to see books on bookshelves.'"

That has changed budgets. In Vancouver, only $2.5-million was spent on print materials in 2010 out of a total materials budget of $4.8-million. Surrey spent about 12 per cent of its $2.1-million materials budget on electronic resources.

The librarian's role has changed less than that of the library. "Think of us as knowledge and information curators – we bring together the best resources from across all dissemination platforms together for our patrons," says Ms. Guinn.

At public libraries everywhere, that's meant a new focus on teaching new groups of users – immigrants, homeless people, teenagers, seniors – not just how to find a print volume, but how to work with all the different kinds of technology to find the most reliable information on the Internet, download a book remotely to their e-readers, and get children excited about reading.

For Bing Thom, designing the new Surrey library with all of those requirements meant thinking about what the core function of a library is. So, although he incorporated many social spaces, his design reinforced what he believes is that essence.

To reinforce the idea that the library is not just another community centre or coffee shop with a lot of laptop workers, he created grand, airy spaces that reinforces a sense of sacredness, with light slanting in obliquely to create an "internal lightbox." He also insisted that it be painted white, a soothing colour but one that demands care (and which maintenance departments typically hate).

"I truly believe they are the new cathedrals. Libraries are changing, but what doesn't change is that sense of sanctuary," says Mr. Thom. "It's a social space, but it's also a psychological place where there's a kind of relaxed tension. You're working with other people who are also working, so you are kind of inspired by them. There's no other civic space like it."

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