“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” Ray Bradbury
Google “Library of the Future” and you get 350 million results. Many examinations of the 21st century library include comments like “this isn’t your childhood library” or “no longer a warehouse for barely touched tomes,” remarks that can feel threatening as much as they can sound promising.
A lot of us liked our childhood libraries, and we touched as many tomes as we could – and still do! We like having quiet, safe places to go and be alone with our thoughts, and imaginations, to travel the world on a library card. But the facts of the matter demand action to keep libraries both a sanctuary for book lovers and a meaningful part of our communities for people who might benefit from new functionality from our public libraries.
A recent Pew Research study on libraries (From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond : A typology of public library engagement in America. March 2014) found that while most people know where their local library is and 97% of Americans highly value their libraries, only 30% can be classified as “high engagement” users, with another 40% classified as “medium engagement “for having “used a library in the past year.” The remaining 30% are fairly disengaged from their public libraries. Changing up library offerings, and perhaps more to the point – reimagining the library – is a natural next step towards reengaging the public with these vital centers of community.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), there are more than 120,000 libraries of all kinds, in the United States. 16,000 of these are public libraries, (nearly 100,000 of them are public school libraries). That’s 16,000 free, public centers of learning and discovery, situated in communities around the country, in urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods, reachable by car, bus, metro, bike and on foot, providing tax payer funded, citizen owned space to read, think and learn, offering programming on everything from basic literacy to digital literacy.
In a related Pew study called Library Services in the Digital Age (January 2013), researchers noted that, “Many librarians said they were intrigued by the idea of makerspaces, or workshops where patrons can work on hands-on projects and collaborations. Similarly, several library staff members said they wished their library could offer digitization resources for local history materials, professional-grade office services such as videoconferencing, as well as renovated spaces that would encourage collaboration and allow the library to offer more types of services.”
And that, in fact, is where many libraries are now headed, looking at ways to revitalize programs and repurpose space to better serve communities and provide new avenues of enjoyment and fulfillment for all users, rebuilding their programs in the service of becoming exciting and relevant hubs of community engagement. Makerspaces in libraries, or their close cousins, digital commons or innovation centers , are making some of the biggest headlines, from Westport, CT to Missoula, MT, from Chicago to right here in Florida, in Orlando to the project we spearheaded here in Tampa, the Community Innovation Center at the John F. Germany Library.
Some efforts to create the “Library of the Future” will fall falter and fall short. Those will often be the result of forced innovation driven from the top down, reflecting administrative and marketing visions of what constitutes “the future”.
Others will totally flip what people think of libraries and will bring excitement,energy, and endless possibilities to our communities, helping move us towards that necessary culture of active creation from one of passive consumption.
These libraries are community driven, as much about programming that reflects community needs and interests, as they are about space use. Land O’Lakes Public Library in Pasco County comes to mind here, with their FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team, the Edgar Allan Ohms, and their Battle of the Bands and Lamecon anime conference, as does Leesburg Public Library with their Zombie Prom.
These types of programming reflect a necessarily fearless approach to reimagining what a public library is, expanding from a static collection of archival knowledge to an active content and program delivery system. This is the type of institutional cultural change we hope to inspire and support with our Makerspace-in-a-Box effort, working with libraries to help them understand both internal capabilities and native interests, and external collaborative possibilities.
The true “Library of the Future” will be collaborative and community driven. It will remain a cherished institution, with quiet places to read and think and vicariously journey, as well as active spaces and programming for academic and workforce skills development, and personal fulfillment, contributing to economic development, generating pride of ownership, and commensurately increased relevancy and vibrancy in the communities libraries serve.
And that’s a future that would make Ray Bradbury proud!