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Reinvention of the Public Library: The Hub of the Community

Once upon a time, “looking something up” required a trip to the library. For the average American, those days are long gone. In today’s high-tech age, information is readily at our fingertips. We are using and processing that information quite differently than we did even a decade ago. In a world dominated by screens and speed—where communication is ongoing, instantaneous and on demand—Dewey Decimal is quickly going the way of the dodo. How are these changes affecting the much-loved icon of knowledge, the public library?

U.S. library customers may have noticed indications that something big is changing in our public library system. Some media outlets are prone to declaring dire predictions of the demise of the public library, yet U.S. libraries have not seen any widespread closings. (UK libraries haven’t fared as well, with the BBC reporting 343 closings in the six-year period leading up to March of 2016.)

The staying power of U.S. libraries is due, at least in part, to their willingness to adapt to the changing demands and expectations of the modern informational age. Today’s libraries are reinventing themselves as thriving hyperlocal community centers dedicated to learning in its many different forms, while still providing customers with easy access to countless treasured books.

So although we may not be using libraries the same way we did in past decades, the modern library actually has even more to offer its customers than ever before. Today’s public libraries truly fulfill the sentiment of Andrew Carnegie, Scottish-American industrialist and well-known library philanthropist, when his design request for libraries built using his funds was that they include “Let There be Light” above their doorways.

The modern library’s road to reinvention


Richland Library North Main - Gate Artwork by Local Artist Laurie Brownell McIntosh

In the 1990s, a student working on a report about George Washington would most likely have ended up at the local library, where he could use the card catalog or a rudimentary computer to search for books on the first president. Today, a student can pull up George’s bio on a smartphone in seconds. While it’s true that libraries no longer corner the market on serving up knowledge, they now have an even more critical function serving as enriching centers that encourage literacy, research, learning, and community involvement on a broad scale.

In order to define a new vision of how libraries fit into the modern world, administrators are faced with several important questions:

  • What will be the core function of our library?

  • What does the local community want and need from their library?

  • How will customers access information?

  • How do hard-copy books fit into the new model?

  • How should the physical space be redesigned or repurposed?

To help formulate answers to those questions, the American Library Association opened the Center for the Future of Libraries in May of 2014. Funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, this organization is dedicated to forecasting new and emerging trends that will impact libraries, librarians and customers.

As part of its efforts to shape modern libraries, the Center for the Future of Libraries has created a “Trends” collection, which tracks current shifts in the categories of Society, Technology, Education, the Environment, Politics, Economics and Demographics (collectively referred to as STEEPED). The Center is committed to helping administrators better understand how advancements in these key areas shape what customers want from their libraries, as well as how to create the most useful and enjoyable experience for library visitors.

On a local scale, contemporary libraries use the internet as just one source to involve the community in the reinvention of their new cultural destination. For example, Richland Library of South Carolina is in the process of modernizing several locations, and created a centralized informational website, www.buildingyourlibrary.com, for community members to stay engaged with the construction, people, artists, collaborators, and community outreach venues.

What needs to change?

Digitization of information

As people rely more on digital devices and less on the printed page, the most prevalent shift for modern libraries will be to offer information in flexible formats, with an emphasis on electronic delivery. Rather than focusing on organizing, finding, and lending books, today’s librarians are assuming the broader role of content curator and even mentor, helping customers locate and understand knowledge in a swelling sea of information. This change can require a substantial investment in new technology hardware as well as software.

Space


The physical space itself will also require a revamp. While in the past the public library focused primarily on providing space for books and quiet nooks for reading, modern facilities are more likely to have not only rows of books and quiet reading nooks but also more open spaces, lots of worksurfaces for crafts and laptops, private networking areas, audio visual rooms, workspaces that encourage
collaboration, and even more intuitive signage to help customers more quickly find specific categories of books.

Demographics

Instead of catering primarily to young children and adults, modern libraries are making efforts to attract more tweens and teens. By offering dedicated spaces with the latest technologies, interactive learning opportunities, and comfortable seating, libraries can serve as safe and engaging places for teens to gather, study, play games, and interact after school and on weekends.

Community Focus

The reinvented facilities are emerging as vibrant, thriving community hubs that combine literature, technology, culture, and the arts. In many urban areas, libraries offer specialized education in core areas such as math, reading, languages and career skills.

Richland Library North Main: Putting Community First


We spoke with Dee Robinson of the
North Main branch of Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina after their recent reinvention project. The main focus of redesigning this library was for it to be a “cultural destination” for the community around them, and one visit to this open and cheerful educational mecca shows just how useful and inviting it is.

The North Main community needed specific resources such as:

  • Open meeting spaces for conferences, classes, and theatrical rehearsals;

  • A sunny outdoor area that welcomes children as well as adults;

  • A way for customers to print, scan, and make copies;

  • A handy crafting nook where teens and adults can unwind through the wildly popular color therapy, or even work on their knitting; and

  • A large public computer knowledge center with plenty of friendly staff on hand to help folks learn and use computers.

From the first conception to the final light bulb, the library managers, staff, architects, and designers have had the people of the North Main community in the forefront. If you’ve visited this library recently, you’d know they’ve met that goal.

Inspiring Examples

Across the country, several libraries are leading the change, revitalizing the modern library and setting an example others can follow. By following the visionary examples of innovators like these, existing libraries can forge new identities that better reflect the needs and nuances of today’s information consumers.

New York Public Library

The pneumatic tubes and conveyor belts that made the New York Public Library seem avant garde in 1911 are now just nostalgic memories. Instead, the modernized library is keeping ahead of the curve with its NYPL Labs, a special department dedicated to digital and experimental undertakings. Just one example of its forward-thinking projects is the NYC Space/Time Directory, billed as “a searchable atlas of New York City’s past stitched together from the pages of old maps.”

The Hunt Public Library at North Carolina State University

Hailed as a library of the future, every inch of this innovative facility was carefully designed to inspire creativity. A model of eco-friendliness, it was built with sustainable utilities and a large portion of recycled materials. Flooded with natural light, the geometric-inspired building boasts stunning lake views.

Richland Library North Main in Columbia SC

Dee Robinson, Richland Library North Main Manager

The newly reinvented North Main branch of the Richland Library system is indeed a “cultural destination,” as Dee Robinson, Richland Library North Main manager referred to it. Through teamwork between The Boudreaux Group (architect), Margaret Sullivan Studio (interior designer), and the North Main community, a design was built that would become a beautiful reflection of the people living near the library and using it the most.

The new facility, the first of ten being reinvented in Richland county, has added over 2000 square feet of space, including more meeting areas, contemporary learning options, upgraded children’s area, an outdoor courtyard, a crafter’s nook, pop-up space, recording studio, a networking center, a general use computer area, and more.

If you’re in the area, take a little time to go by and see how this reinvented library is truly a hyperlocal community-driven hub of education, creativity, connection, and resources that many community members often don’t have access to from anywhere else.

Ready to reinvent your library?

If you’re ready to reinvent your library, let us help. Our space planning and design team can work with you to craft a plan for the best community-minded library possible, and our top-rated installation crew can give you peace of mind that it will all be handled with care. Schedule an appointment with one of our specialists by calling 877.779.3409, or fill out our online form for more information.


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