The library is by no means a modern invention: The earliest yet discovered dates to the Archives of Ebla founded in Syria around 2,500 BC. The fascination with ancient repositories, especially the lost Library of Alexandria, persists today. The latter was commemorated in 2001 with a new building by Snøhetta, and in the modern era, the most well-known architects have all dabbled in library design. One need look no further than the Mies van der Rohe library in Washington, D.C., or the New York Public Library—designed in Beaux Arts splendor by Carrère and Hastings, and with a planned addition by Foster + Partners—to see the vast spectrum of how architects have defined these temples of learning over the last century.
But in the 21st century, libraries have been undergoing an identity crisis. New buildings have begun to see fewer stacks and more computer terminals. Rows of high-density storage shelves are being replaced by reading rooms with robotic book-retrieval. Despite some uncertainty, one of the few bright spots to emerge from the Great Recession was the resurgence of the American library, as stimulus-related bond measures revamped facilities and communities turned back to them as central gathering spaces with public information services. Libraries have been many things to many people over the years, and as such, a constantly evolving building type. No one has better captured that then the photographers at Esto, who have been committing these projects to film for more than 50 years. Flip through this small selection of images they have to offer—from Richardson to Rem, these represent some of the best libraries of the modern era.