THE FUTURE OF THE PUBLIC LIBRARY
Like most children growing up in the 1980’s and 90’s, I visited the library out of necessity and personal interest.
I made the obligatory trips to the library to work on school research projects. I borrowed three Dostoyevsky novels to fulfill my high school literature requirements. I would use the shared computers so that I could print my Lycos, AltaVista, and Yahoo search results.
But, more importantly, it’s also where I had access to niche information. It was a library book that won me playground credibility when I was able to craft multiple styles of paper airplanes. It was a library book that allowed me to take second place in a 6th grade chess tournament after only playing for one year. And it was dozens of library books that taught me slight-of-hand magic tricks that I used years later to create an online business showing beginner magicians how to perform street magic like David Blaine.
Twenty years ago, the library was the only place where society could gain access to isolated information. Today, Google will provide high quality articles and videos within a few seconds, and without the twenty-minute car ride.
But the library is much more than just a place for books. I didn’t want to read a book on paper airplanes – I wanted to learn how to make them – and the book was the method. The library has always been a place to learn, to create, to connect with individuals of different backgrounds, and to act as a cornerstone of the community. If we keep these core principles in mind, I believe that libraries have an opportunity to reinvent themselves as community learning centers while distancing themselves from their perceived dependence on physical books.
For survival, the library must command and brand itself as the community’s central learning hub. While books were the primary learning medium forty years ago, I think it’s important to note that libraries have done an admirable job at modernizing their learning offerings. In the 1980’s they were some of the first entities to offer public use of computers and the internet. With the downfall of Blockbuster and other video rental establishments, it was the library that filled the void by offering free VHS and DVD rentals to library-card holders. They’ve embraced the digitization of books with the vast majority of libraries offering eBook lending, and some even offer streaming services for audiobooks, movies, music, and television shows.
I think one method of learning that can be improved upon that would help solidify their reputation as a central learning hub is increasing the quantity of in-person niche learning opportunities. Monthly, once-a-week learning opportunities in photography, gardening, computer programming, Spanish, or guitar has potential to generate community participation.
Every community has a unique mixture of skilled individuals willing to donate their time for societal good. A local artist can teach a watercolor class. A local fly fisherman can teach you how to tie your own Wholly Bugger. A DJ could teach community members how to align beats of different songs, so their rhythms and tempos do not clash. While your local community may not have a magician willing to teach you “The Double Lift”, some community will.
A distance learning studio equipped with cameras and a microphone would allow the library to stream the presenter and their content to any viewer with a library card. Each community could share their volunteer’s expertise through mutually beneficial digital programming partnerships reducing the quantity of local volunteers required, increasing the diversity of the offerings, and ultimately offering the maximum of niche learning opportunities to your local community.
In additional to being the learning hub, the library could also become a centralized creation hub for the community. A 10’ x 10’ room can be transformed into a podcasting studio allowing local members to create their own podcasts. All that’s required is a computer, a microphone, and free editing software. Once recorded, these podcasts can be uploaded to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or any other podcasting service using free podcasting websites such as Anchor.fm.
A makerspace would provide a community operated workspace for children and teenagers to create and collaborate using hand tools, digital art, 3D printers, sewing machines, coding, and robotics. After an initial investment in the tools to get started, the community could share the supplies, skills, and ideas to instill a creation mindset.
One of the unfortunate outcomes of the COVID pandemic has been the withdrawal of people from public places. The CDC states that younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential works, and unpaid adult caregivers have experienced disproportionally worse mental health outcomes, substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation due to the stresses and societal dispersion. Combine that with our addiction to our electronic devices and I fear that the reduction of connecting with diverse groups may also cause a lack of empathy to propagate. The library should take the leading role in creating an inclusive environment that encourages intermingling and reduces individual isolation.
In many communities, story time with children has long been a staple in the library’s arsenal that encourages reading along with combating seclusion. Libraries have also programmed for many in-person learning opportunities such as science experiments, arts, and crafts. But considering the CDC’s assessment that it’s primarily adult mental health that is experiencing the greatest negative toll, I feel the library should equally focus on adult interactions. Onsite yoga classes, wellness activities, and community walks can be organized by the library. Green space for a community garden could create a collision point for impromptu interactions. Trivia nights always draw a crowd.
According to XpertHR’s latest survey results on October 7th, 2021, 72% of employers intend to offer hybrid work (ie. working remotely a few days a week or month) to some of their employees after the COVID-19 pandemic. With the realization that hybrid work will continue, libraries can become their local communities public co-working space. Offering a nice, quiet workplace for adults who do not have a quiet home office or would like some degree of in-person social interaction would be drawn to this offering. Small huddle rooms could be rented for minimal fees. A coffee bar would encourage morning conversations. Singer/songwriter nights and “booze with books” would carry those conversations into the evening.
Libraries also understand the importance of family gatherings. In addition to the time-tested family story time, board game nights would provide families the opportunity to play new games, bond, and interact with other families in the neighborhood. Family trivia night would act as both an education tool and entertainment. A virtual gaming lounge would let parents show their children the classics like Pac-Man and Tetris while children can teach their parents how to build a castle in Roblox. A family-friendly comedian may be a successful event. With parents working longer hours and children preoccupied with social media, family events should be a strong draw.
At the end of the day, the goal of the library is to serve its community. It helps educate our youth, provides a haven for kids, and supports our elders who may be engaging in a digital world for the first time. It provides learning experiences and person-to-person interactions for every age, gender, ethnicity, disability, and income-level.
And as community members, it’s only just that we reciprocate our service to the library. Volunteer to teach a niche offering. Fund a new podcast studio. Donate time to organize an event. The entwinement of the library’s success and the community’s participation is correlated. A rising tide lifts all boats.
This thought piece was written by BrightTree Studios President William McIntosh, CTS-D, RCDD, PMP, thought leader and technology visionary.