The Future of Libraries, Part III

center-for-the-future-of-librariesLibrary as Innovator – Future ideas for libraries—in traditional roles and otherwise—are already in play.

The American Library Association (ALA) has taken a proactive position by forming the Center for the Future of Libraries. The Center’s goal is to identify emerging trends of libraries, librarians and surrounding communities. Working with librarians across the United States, the Center’s information and data has worked to direct future innovations and plans.

Perhaps the most exciting concept for book lovers, knowledge junkies and education addicts is the concept of a national library system.

You heard right.

Users could access books from any library in the country. It’s a tease, yes, but current plans are in the works, and most consider it a matter of time. How much time it will take is up for debate. Can you imagine the benefits—from entertainment, education and research, to name a few. Mind, blown.

For many libraries across the United States—and around the world—the future is now. The decision to reinvest in their current system or reinvent a new program that is modern and revolutionary is forcing innovation and inviting change. With broken budgets and antiquated systems, and even aging infrastructure, problems are creating opportunities. Librarians are faced with a full-scale makeover, without additional public funding.chatanooga-public-library

The Chattanooga Public Library system has met the challenge. Corinne Hill, the director and now industry thought leader, refused to back down from the challenge; refused to say “no”, “I can’t” or “we shouldn’t”.

She treated the library system—the one she was asked to overhaul without a single extra dollar—like a start-up. She knew that her R&D would look a bit different. She would empty the entire 4th floor—serving as storage space—and transform the room into a Beta space to try new things, in public.

In a speech to the Knight Foundation on “The Future of Libraries”, Hill told a room of national library leaders, that the Chattanooga Public Library System is now considered a “hub for civic innovation, a public maker-space, a gig lab…” She created a collaborative open data project, challenging what digital collections and services might look like beyond e-books, streaming video and database access. Protocols, processes and programs were reassessed, purged or reinvented—all with the customer in mind.

“We’re also a lab for a freelance job market,” Hill told the audience, with a mix of enthusiasm and assertiveness. “We’re pushing into the DIY market, with a partnership with We recently bought a loom…. we are definitely exploring the local textile market.”

The Knight Foundation, a non-profit organization driven to study the current and future potential of libraries, awarded cash prizes for the most creative and innovative ways to ensure libraries could best serve their communities. With more than 600 entries, the 14 winners included museums, small startups, non-profit organizations, academic institutions and, of course, libraries.

wikipedia-logoOne winner was the Online Computer Library Center. This “global library cooperative” pitched a program that connects library sources with Wikipedia editors. With roughly 15 percent of web traffic directed to Wikipedia, the Center’s goal was to “address the critical gap between the invisibility of library collections and resources on the web.” The program would train librarians to edit Wikipedia so they could teach others in their community. The accuracy of Wikipedia entries would increase and readers might be led to the library site for additional information and resources.

With community journalism struggling to stay alive, another contest winner pitched a partnership between Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Public Library. The partnership would oversee a community journalism class for high schoolers. The program would train students to utilize library resources for journalism and nonfiction writing. Librarians, professional journalists and students would work together to engage communities and inspire future journalists.

And when new services or current infrastructure are not possible or practical, a do-over is seen as a one-time-only opportunity. Label those who pave the way renegades or risk-takers, either way, their decisions—the big picture and tiny details—will dictate the future of the public library.

The town of Almere in the Netherlands has capitalized on an opportunity to make their library space inclusive, modern and happening. It is now the place to go and the place to be seen. After their traditional library had lost its relevancy to the community, the building underwent a redesign and adopted a new identity—Nieuwe Bibliotheek.

After a comprehensive series of surveys, the town devised a plan. Drawing inspiration from retail design and merchandising, books were grouped by interest, and displayed face-out for easier identification and graphic punch. Designers tap into what shoppers are drawn to in retail stores—bright colors, modern graphics, cool surfaces and alluring textures. Balmere-public-netherlandsookshelves are curvaceous and made of steel, glass and concrete; they hold adventures and knowledge within the jackets of known and unknown names. In a truly communal space, patrons are granted free work-space in exchange for helping others in the library. The building boasts a cafe, events program, gaming facility and reading garden.

Surveys defined individual customer groups for each segment of the book market (youth, culture, health, etc.). Each book market had its own section. Research showed that roughly 75 percent of visitors came with no title in mind—the impetus for additional seating and a cool vibe to entice patrons to extend their stay. Bookshelves are separated into a variety of zones. A ‘High Tension’ zone serves those who quickly peruse the shelves and a ‘Retreat Zone’ for patrons who like to casually scan the shelves. The Nieuwe Bibliotheek has become considered one of the most innovative libraries in the world.

The public library was born a curator of history and protector of truth. It remains in that role today, a democratic institution and guardian of intellectual freedom. As technology, budgets and community demand a reinterpretation of the traditional library, the system has been forced to examine its role in society. But any institution that has remained relevant for this long has figured out their own survival method. Librarians seek answers from their shelves for advice, historical perspective and creative solutions.

Connecting people and jobs, providing tools for creative expression, educating those seeking new skills for a better life. The library may now be more central, more necessary than ever—the last institution that demands nothing.

People still walk through library doors, eager and hungry. They still pore over offerings for adventures, history, insight and a good tale. Readers are still committed to cracking open a book and turning a page. A good story can patch together a broken spirit and sooth a rattled mind. The reader’s experience remains spiritual and addictive—in a simple action we can examine, understand and debate just what makes us human.


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