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.

A man browses through books at the Cecil H. Green on the Stanford University Campus December 17, 2004 in Stanford, California. Google, the internet search engine, has announced a long-term project to put 15 million books from seven of the world's most prestigious libraries online and make them searchable. Included will be the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library and the University of Oxford, including the Bodleian. Books and periodicals will be scanned and project is expected to take six years and cost more than $100 million.
National Journal
Brian Resnick
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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.

“We’re try­ing to do is ac­know­ledge that ac­cess to the com­mons is no longer a read-only en­vir­on­ment.”

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.”

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