What the Library of the Future Will Look Like

No longer a warehouse for barely touched tomes, the Chattanooga Public Library has embraced 3-D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, and, above all, interaction.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
Jan. 21, 2014, 4:30 a.m.

For­get what you know about the lib­rary of the 20th cen­tury. You know, those dark places with clunky mi­cro­form ma­chines fos­sil­iz­ing in the base­ment and with rows of en­cyc­lo­pe­di­as stand­ing, per­fectly al­pha­bet­ized, in deni­al of their ob­sol­es­cence.

For­get all of that: The lib­rary as a ware­house of in­form­a­tion is an out­dated concept. The lib­rary of the 21st cen­tury is a com­munity work­shop, a hub filled with the tools of the know­ledge eco­nomy.

“If we can’t shine in this en­vir­on­ment, in this eco­nomy, shame on us,” says Corinne Hill, the dir­ect­or of lib­rary sys­tem in Chat­tanooga, Tenn. — a sys­tem that has thor­oughly mi­grated in­to the cur­rent era.

The lib­rary of the 21st cen­tury still has books, but it also has 3-D print­ers, laser cut­ters, sew­ing ma­chines, and spaces for con­duct­ing busi­ness meet­ings. It of­fers com­puter cod­ing classes. It has ad­vanced video- and au­dio-pro­duc­tion soft­ware. All things that might and in­di­vidu­al may find too ex­pens­ive but can still be­ne­fit from us­ing.

Last year, the down­town Chat­tanooga pub­lic lib­rary cleared out its en­tire fourth floor — 14,000 square feet of former stor­age space — and opened its floor plan for a com­munity col­lab­or­a­tion space. It’s part pub­lic work­shop, part tech­no­logy pet­ting zoo. But mem­bers of the com­munity can also use the space to work on pro­jects or try to launch a busi­ness.

“It used to be, when I came in here, the pri­or­ity was on de­vel­op­ing the col­lec­tion and buy­ing really high-end re­search ma­ter­i­als,” Hill says about her ar­rival at the lib­rary in 2012. “Those big bound ref­er­ence tomes that cost thou­sands of dol­lars.” Look­ing through the budget, she thought, “Oh, my lord, how much money did you spend on this last year? That’s a total waste of money.”

People go to the pub­lic lib­rary for Grisham, not Hume, after all. “If you’re work­ing on a Ph.D., what are you do­ing here?” she says.

She shif­ted around the lib­rary’s $5.7 mil­lion budget, mak­ing room for the 3-D print­ers and vinyl cut­ters, and star­ted stock­ing the shelves with more pop­u­lar titles. So in­stead of spend­ing $10,000 for ac­cess to little-used aca­dem­ic journ­als, the lib­rary pur­chased maker­bots (the 3-D print­ers) for around $2,000, a laser cut­ter for around $5,000, and a vinyl cut­ter for $3,000. With these moves, the lib­rary has rebranded it­self as a cof­fee shop al­tern­at­ive/tech­no­logy salon for the up­wardly mo­bile. It even brews its own roast cof­fee, aptly named “shush.”

“With this space, what we’re try­ing to do is ac­know­ledge that ac­cess to the com­mons is no longer a read-only en­vir­on­ment,” says Meg Back­us, who runs the lib­rary’s fourth floor.

The Chattanooga public library's fourth floor. chattlibrary/Flickr

Back­us says lib­rar­ies should find in­struc­tion in the evol­u­tion of the In­ter­net — which star­ted as a place to post stat­ic pages and now is a thor­oughly col­lab­or­at­ive en­vir­on­ment. “There needs to be pro­duc­tion cap­ab­il­it­ies for true ac­cess to hap­pen,” she says. “That means the abil­ity to cre­ate a video, the abil­ity to learn how to make a web­site, to have ac­cess to the soft­ware that can cre­ate these 3-D files.”

And the lib­rary’s ini­ti­at­ives aren’t just for adults; the chil­dren and teen sec­tion now has video­games, but­ton-makers, and a sew­ing ma­chine.

En­gage 3D, a loc­al non­profit that pro­motes edu­ca­tion in com­puter tech­no­lo­gies with the hope of at­tract­ing more tech jobs to the area, of­ten col­lab­or­ates with the lib­rary. This past sum­mer, it helped host a com­puter cod­ing camp for teens.

“It’s so ex­cit­ing for them to say, ‘Come and use our fa­cil­ity.’ Hell, yeah, we want that,” says Bill Brock, the man­aging dir­ect­or of En­gage 3D. A lifelong res­id­ent of Chat­tanooga, Brock says, “It was really kind of sweet to watch it [the lib­rary] come back and re­cre­ate it­self.” He now sees people con­greg­ate there, to share ideas. “Wheth­er or not they’re [3-D] print­ing the next wid­gets to change the world or not — it doesn’t mat­ter — the know­ledge trans­fer is hap­pen­ing around it,” he says.

Instead of a warehouse of information, libraries need tools for use by the commons — a Netflix of things.

Tiffany Robin­son, a lib­rary board mem­ber, works with an an­gel fund in­ten­ded to get more fe­male en­tre­pren­eurs set up in Chat­tanooga. She ima­gines the lib­rary as a place where fe­male busi­ness starters can come and work, while keep­ing their kids en­ter­tained. “The change in the lib­rary is al­most like a re­sur­gence in the com­munity,” she says. “It’s like this thing that’s been dead for so long.”

And the over­haul in the op­er­at­ing philo­sophy is work­ing. At­tend­ance is up 150 per­cent throughout the four-lib­rary sys­tem, Hill says. From 52,000 people in the first quarter of 2012 to 151,000 in the most re­cent. “Yeah, my cir­cu­la­tion is up; they’re tak­ing stuff out, but not at a 150 per­cent in­crease. So they are com­ing for oth­er things. I love that they’re see­ing the build­ing as be­ing more than the stuff that is in it.” The main down­town lib­rary is the only one with a “fourth floor,” and it func­tions as “kind of a beta lab,” for the sys­tem, as Back­us says. The idea may ex­pand to the oth­er loc­a­tions in the fu­ture.

Hill’s work has earned her the re­spect of her peers. In Janu­ary, Lib­rary Journ­al, a trade pub­lic­a­tion, named Hill its 2014 Lib­rar­i­an of the Year. “Hill has cre­ated a mod­el for oth­er lib­rar­i­ans to watch,” the journ­al’s ed­it­or­i­al dir­ect­or said in a re­lease.

As in­form­a­tion has be­come easi­er to ac­cess, lib­rar­ies are smart to bol­ster their phys­ic­al spaces to stay rel­ev­ant. And Chat­tanooga isn’t the only city that has ad­op­ted this philo­sophy. The Mar­tin Luth­er King Lib­rary in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for in­stance, has a “Di­git­al Com­mons,” equipped with 3-D print­ers and a book­bind­ing ma­chine. But lib­rar­ies also ad­apt to the needs and in­terests of their com­munit­ies. A lib­rary in Over­land Park, Kan., last year offered a pop­u­lar sem­in­ar in hog-but­cher­ing.

Lib­rar­ies are es­pe­cially apt to in­crease their rel­ev­ance in the com­ing years, con­sid­er­ing the rise of the “shar­ing eco­nomy,” a concept ar­gu­ably in­ven­ted by the first lib­rar­ies. The shar­ing eco­nomy means that in­stead of own­ing things out­right, people pay to use them only when needed. Think Zip­car and Citi Bike as prime ex­amples.

Re­cently, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that 90 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans would be up­set if their loc­al lib­rary closed. But the sur­vey also found “52% of Amer­ic­ans say that people do not need pub­lic lib­rar­ies as much as they used to be­cause they can find most in­form­a­tion on their own.”

That’s why lib­rar­ies need to ad­apt. People want them — but want them to be bet­ter. In­stead of a ware­house of in­form­a­tion, lib­rar­ies need tools for use by the com­mons — a Net­flix of things.  

“We’ve been in the in­form­a­tion busi­ness for 3,000 years,” Hill says, wax­ing philo­soph­ic­al on the role of the lib­rar­i­an in so­ci­ety. “If there’s any­thing we do well, it’s de­liv­er in­form­a­tion, and in­form­a­tion is know­ledge. I think if any­body is po­si­tioned to help build work­ers for this new in­form­a­tion age, it is the lib­rary.”