Corrections Appended: July 12, 2013
The original version of this article included several quotes or statements that were not clearly attributed to the original sources.
This isn’t your childhood library. The Hunt Library at North Carolina State University is beautiful. The main floor looks more like a sleek Apple showroom than a stuffy library. And instead of a Genius Bar, there’s an Ask Me alcove, where you can get help on everything from laptops to flash drives.
Rather than the Dewey system, color-coded walls, stairs and elevators help you find not just books and research papers, but also media rooms, video game collections and even a 3-D printing lab to create plastic models. But the best part? Built with state funds and private donations, it’s open to the public.
Welcome to the library of the future.
“There’s a lot of talk about how libraries should change, but very few ideas of how they should be shaped,” Vaughn Tan, a member of the Harvard’s University Library project, told the Library Journal. “Every library should figure out what they want to be and just do that.”
Across the country, in the booming Bexar County in San Antonio, you’ll see the same thing: groups of people huddle over gadgets instead of the card catalog, as food and coffee vendors dot the space. No stern librarian here to hush you into submission — if you need to concentrate, “just enough” noise is better than absolute silence. One thing’s missing at Bexar County’s library — the books. That’s right — a library with no books.
The nearly 5,000-square foot $1.5 million compound, dubbed the “BiblioTech,” which opens this fall, will have 50 computer stations, along with 150 e-readers, 25 laptops and 25 tablets for residents to check out. It also plans to team up with local schools and give digital literacy courses to lure visitors.
Just like traditional libraries, you use a card to check out any of the 10,000 e-books, and you’ll have two to three weeks to read them before they simply disappears from your e-reader — no late fees, overdue fines. In fact, you’ll never have to step foot into the library. Just borrow and return material from a computer or smartphone. But if you forget to return an e-reader, it’ll deactivate it remotely to remind you.
The all-digital library was a practical solution to San Antonio’s problem — a library system that served the city population well, but left the growing county population in the dark. Leaning on digital helped BiblioTech pull together assets and collection quickly, rather than spend time and resources building up a physical book inventory. “For us this was just an obvious solution to a growing problem,” Laura Cole, project coordinator, told the BBC. County judge Nelson Wolff even said the Apple store look and feel inspired its long, gadget-topped workbench layout, according to HLNtv.com.
It’s a high-stakes gamble for libraries. And nothing, it seems, is too sacred.
Leaning on Digital
When was the last time you stepped into a library? Probably, not in a while. After all, when you have Google, you can look up anything with a smartphone or tablet.
As library attendance declines, officials facing tough budget cutbacks see them as easy targets. In 2011, nearly half of all states reported a cut in funding for three years in a row. California, in particular, cut the budget in half from 2011 to 2012, while Texas slashed two-thirds from its State Library and Archives Commission.
You may think libraries a dying relic, but surprisingly, people still go there to use computers, often to look for work or beef up their tech skills. Small businesses and community organizations also use study rooms for office and meeting spaces. And according to a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report, nearly half of Americans living below the poverty line access e-mail and the Web from libraries, highlighting how they’re still an important staple in the community.
Technology crippled libraries, but they’re also helping them keep apace, as more people pick up e-readers at the cost of physical books. In the past year, a quarter of Americans read an e-book, and as of November, about one-third reported owning an e-reader or tablet, according to a Pew survey.
For Bexar, a digital library was the most affordable way to service its residents, but the idea of abandoning books isn’t without controversy. Reading an e-book or using a computer requires a different skill set than reading a novel and using pen and paper. “I think there’s some value to the ability to hold a book in one’s hand,” Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, told The Atlantic Cities. “There’s something very special about the tactile experience, a personal connection that happens there.”
Filling up a library with e-books isn’t simple, either. The ALA and the big six publishers are locked in a battle over the borrowing of e-books. Fearing technology could commoditize it, much like it did with music, publishers are intent to find a business model that gives it the most control, and the highest margins. That means some publishers flat-out refuse to sell e-books to libraries at any price, while those that do charge steep prices. After all, if you can borrow e-books for free, why would you buy them online? You probably won’t.
For libraries, supplying e-books can cost up to three times more than physical books. And they say if publishers continue to withhold or sell e-books at such high prices, they won’t be able to continue their core mission of serving the public.
Still, cities and counties are considering a bookless model, especially those in under-served neighborhoods. Digital libraries require less space, collections of research material are easier to pull together and consumers are looking for e-books. “It is a most exciting time for libraries,” Sullivan said, this time to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Books are still important, but libraries are also delivering content and experiences to their communities in new, very different and exciting ways.”
Other Ways to Keep Apace
A shift is needed. To move libraries from places where you look up facts to those where you learn skills and engage in new experiences. Instead of “shushing” librarians and stilted study rooms, libraries often have integrated art galleries, coffee shops and even cafeterias. And some are even exploring the idea of a 21st century gathering space.
At Harvard, a group of students from the Graduate School of Design created a pop-up space, called the “Labrary,” which shows how a library can move to digital yet still stay vital. Open since last November, the Labrary showcases projects ranging from edible telegrams made with graham crackers and 3-D icing printers to an online photo opera where visitors enter a murder mystery photo booth and experience “death by technology.” The flexible, connected space also brings together workshops to serve the community.
Libraries are also pushing to offer spaces for kids to hang out, play games and learn in what’s being called a “maker culture.” Three years ago, the Chicago Public Library started its YouMedia program to engage kids with interactive learning programs like those focusing on laser cutters and 3-D printers. In Chattanooga, for example, a record-setting 1,200 people stopped by the library in one day to check out large-scale industrial models, 3-D scanners and an experimental 3-D videoconferencing system using Kinect cameras. And Kids in other libraries can do more than use gadgets — they can learn soldering and circuitry to build them.
In some ways, libraries are doing what they’ve always done: adapting to technology, whether by collecting documents, storing records and videotapes or offering e-books and computer terminals. Today, they’re under pressure to give more and create spaces that connect people to information and ideas.
Books won’t fade, but with so many other mediums to explore, libraries, especially those with technology, can enhance skills. Access itself isn’t enough: libraries need to harness the sheer overabundance of information in the digital age and become facilitators to help us sort through the avalanche.
This article was written by Margaret Rock and originally appeared on Mobiledia.
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