I recently had the privilege of speaking at the National Library of Korea’s 77th Anniversary. In my talk, I argued that there is no future for libraries—instead, there are many diverse futures, futures diverse as the communities libraries are designed to serve. And in these futures, librarians shape their libraries around these unique communities, diverse in demographics, needs, capabilities, and locations.

In some places libraries will be gardens, or gaming parlors, or book palaces. In all places, libraries must be truly co-owned by the community, with librarians serving as the common point of connection between communities, part of a vibrant peer-based learning network would constantly share ideas and adapt the best for their very local needs.

I reached this conclusion over years of working with librarians across the globe: A makerspace in a small central New York village; a network of food pantries in Canada; recording studios with instruments in the Netherlands; resources carried to remote tribes in Kenya on the backs of camels; a symbol of oppression transformed into a temple of the people in a revolution in Egypt. These are all libraries, all radically different, but all bound by a common mission.

As part of my trip to Korea, I had the pleasure of visiting a host of innovative community libraries there. And what I found was that these communities have built the very libraries that I have been advocating for: community centered, empowering, progressive.

Take, for example, the Gusan-dong Village Library, which was created by the social action of citizens. Community members (many of them single mothers) petitioned their local government to create this library. The citizens of the area then created their own library school to plan the library through meetings, lectures from invited speakers, shared readings. The library itself was constructed from existing buildings no taller and no grander than the apartments around them, with the footprints of the original homes preserved but now offering everything from self-published works to collective governance. A large collection of comics, eschewed by many formal public libraries, is a central collection to the community’s children.

I was also taken with the tT (tween-Teen Island) Library. As the name suggests, it is a library focused on teens and tweens funded by the private SeeArt Foundation. The library, which grew from a program to build teen spaces in existing libraries, is a living laboratory for teens, where thousands of local children and teens have access to their own makerspaces—no adults allowed. Here, young people can play instruments, create, build, use power tools, or record TikTok videos in a dance studio. And at the center of the building: a kitchen where families and friends can prepare and share meals.

In none of my library work had I ever seen such a true and powerful integration of formal and informal learning.

As I toured the building with staff (who were dressed in jeans and hoodies) a child of 11 or so reached out and hugged the library director’s legs. The director smiled, welcomed the girl by name, and returned the hug. Here was a safe place for young people to explore, staffed by librarians who did not serve as detached information professionals, but as trusted partners—librarians and teens building together a culture of mutual respect. A respect that includes letting teens develop library policy, and where the only "training" was done by peers for their peers.

There was the Neutinamu Library, a library handcrafted by the local citizens, funded not by taxes but by the direct contributions of its supporters. As I walked into the library, four volunteer teens were going through newspapers, clipping articles into large binders on topics important to the community such as climate change and democracy—a clipping service owned and operated by the community, for the community. All the bookshelves of the library’s first floor were on wheels to allow the space to opened up for nightly lectures, performances, and community conversations. In the basement, rows of images, flyers, newsletters, and other materials that tell the history of the Neutinamu community.

In the suburbs of Seoul, I visited the Mapo Library, a six-story structure where the top two floors are dedicated to arts education. Every day, middle school children as part of their normal classes come to the library to learn music, pottery, illustration, dance, and more, all led by instructors provided by the library. There is also a kitchen to host shared community meals. The library was created from a powerful vision of libraries being an integral part of education in schools and beyond. In none of my library work had I ever seen such a true and powerful integration of formal and informal learning.

Mapo was not the only community-driven connection between learning and libraries I observed in Korea. In the rural hills of Suncheon I visited a community that built an alternative school to escape the competitive, high-pressure setting of the public school system. Every morning, the students and teachers walk from the seashore through the fields to the school in the hills, a ritual that prepares all to learn and appreciate the richness of the world and their own place in it.

On my visit, I observed many rituals that prepared library users to mentally and physically engage the community, and the library's collections and services: Washing hands in the Suncheon Miracle Library, for example; Puppet shows at the Picture Library, which provides the community with galleries, an extensive picture book collection, and a research library on illustration; Taking off shoes at the Manbaldongmu (Bare Foot) Library, to remind children of playing in the creeks of the neighborhood.

Most of my tour was organized by Young-Sook “Soy” Park. A self-taught librarian, Soy saw a need for marginalized to have places to gather and learn, so she created a basement library. Embraced by the community, and funded by donations, that library is now a full building that includes collections, community archives, a kitchen, and a garden. The building is filled with people from the area donating their time and expertise to making their community better. Soy also hosts paid library student interns, dubbed “pre-librarians,” who prepare to take the library’s community-based approach to new villages, cities, universities, and schools across Korea.

In addition to a library, Soy has also created a sort of library school. The creators of TTIsland library and the Barefoot library have spent months working together in this school thinking together, and planning for new libraries. My tour across the Korea was in part a snapshot of what they have built, a network of librarians wanting to build unique libraries for their communities, whether in gleaming new modern buildings or in rooms filled with donated furniture from people’s homes. Libraries often staffed by “guerilla librarians” and served by a peer-based network of teachers, philanthropists, scholars, and activist teens. It's a vision that is now influencing the traditional libraries in cities like Seoul and Busan.

I could go on, but you really have to see for yourself. If you get the chance, go to Korea and visit these libraries for yourself. I assure you, you will want to take their ideas back to your community. Fair warning, these libraries really cannot be replicated. What makes them work is that they are all hand made for their unique communities. But the genius of Soy Park and the Sea-Art Foundation and the Barefoot library is something all librarians can understand and embrace: for libraries to fulfill their mission they must be intimately shaped by their communities.

R. David Lankes is the Virginia & Charles Bowden Professor of Librarianship at the iSchool at University of Texas at Austin, and a leading advocate for libraries.