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How Libraries Are Boldly Innovating to Meet the Needs of Changing Communities

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center is one of many libraries around the US and the world that are reshaping themselves — inside and out.

Grassroots groups rallied around the New York's 42nd Street Library, a famous research institution, to ensure that its sizable collection stays put. (Photo: Stephen Weppler [CC-BY-NC])

More than a decade ago, the city of Lafayette in the greater San Francisco Bay Area did some soul-searching about the fate of its library. With a population of just a little more than 25,000, the city had outgrown the tiny 1960s building within a decade. The library’s structure was falling apart, which was especially problematic in earthquake country. As the conversation about building a new library ramped up, Steve King, a longtime resident and small business economy researcher, wasn’t so sure a brick-and-mortar library was even needed — not with the Internet seemingly taking its place. The way he saw it, you could find much of the same information online as you could at the library — anytime, without even leaving the house.

Since then, King has reversed his stance on the subject. He and his wife helped fundraise for a new library. He attends concerts and lectures in the space, and he can often be found coworking there. He likes to settle into a nook overlooking a landscaped area — a “nice, quiet place to surf the web,” he says. King is not alone. The new library is packed from morning till night, the crowd turning over by the hour.

The facility is now far more than just a traditional library. When it opened in 2009, the space’s name was changed to the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, which alludes to a mission that goes far beyond book lending. For starters, the library moved to a busier, more centralized location in Lafayette — it’s within walking distance for schoolchildren and seniors — and, quintupling in size, the center now has ample room for performances (complete with a Steinway grand piano), presentations, meetings, classes, studying, and hanging out. “It was organized around being a community center and learning center rather than a library only,” says King, adding that the project has been “hugely successful.”

Even the City Council meets at the library, which lends transparency to its members’ deliberations. The place gets plenty of foot traffic, with a cafe, bookstore, the Lafayette Arts and Science Foundation headquarters, and the Lafayette Historical Society all housed in the center. It demonstrates that people “still feel the need and want to be around others,” as opposed to just Googling things at home, says Steven Falk, the city manager who describes it as a “shared learning experience.”

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center is one of many libraries around the U.S. and the world that are reshaping themselves, inside and out, to meet the changing needs of their communities. Although the idea hasn’t quite gone mainstream yet, libraries are becoming increasingly important in cities, both as physical spaces that are open to all and for the wide-ranging resources they offer. Literacy and books haven’t gone by the wayside, but libraries are also tackling other types of learning, and in some cases, even taking alternative forms: becoming “learning centers,” going “bookless,” creating tool libraries and Libraries of Things, providing other types of materials to check out or access, and “popping up” in unorthodox locales.

For example, in Santa Monica, some public library staffers headed to the beach with a load of books to set up a temporary pop-up library that included an assortment of beach reads. At the Cleveland Heights–University Heights Public Library, staff deliver free books via bikes as part of their Book Bike program. The bikes are used for “outreach to schools and community events where we give away free books and other materials,” says the library’s spokesperson Sheryl Banks.

The Challenges of a New Era

As libraries work to reinvent themselves, they’re up against the challenges of aging infrastructures, shrinking budgets, and shifting public perceptions about the necessity of libraries in an Internet age. Over the past year, the American Library Association (ALA) has ramped up its Libraries Transform campaign to spread the word about how libraries are rising to the occasion.

As library systems recalibrate themselves — each at their own pace — they typically need more communal space and better technology. But old buildings may not be ideal for setting up broadband access.

Sari Feldman, the ALA’s president and executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, in Parma, Ohio, says there’s a trend to renovate or replace library buildings, but this is dependent on taxes from cities or counties. “It’s not an easy change to make — to offer 21st-century library services using digital tools and space for innovation and content creation,” Feldman says.

To keep pace with the times and to figure out how best to serve their users, library administrators are zeroing in on what’s happening in their communities to determine community strengths and how they can nurture and leverage them. “That’s where learning becomes so critical,” Feldman says.

LA president, Sari Feldman (right) of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, in Parma, Ohio, with U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), has worked to show how libraries are adapting to meet communities’ ever-changing needs.LA president, Sari Feldman (right) of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, in Parma, Ohio, with US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), has worked to show how libraries are adapting to meet communities’ ever-changing needs. (Photo: American Library Association [CC-BY])

A Big Idea

In Lafayette, the state-of-the-art library is a modern-looking structure of stone, wood, and glass gracefully blending into the hillside. The $50 million facility, nestled in the heart of the city, feels like a spacious campus, with several interconnected buildings. But the impressive layout is not the whole story, King says.

“I don’t think that’s the magic of it,” King says. “You could do this in a much dumpier building …[even] a converted warehouse, and it would be every bit as good.”

King attributes the project’s success to the Glenn Seaborg Learning Consortium — a mix of public and private sector partners that frequently draws marquee names to the suburban center: master gardeners, Pixar animators, famous authors, and well-known jazz artists. The collaborative approach makes for a strong, diverse lineup of programs throughout the year.

The consortium came together organically while the library was still in its conceptual stages. As is the case in so many other cities, the Lafayette library was always susceptible amid funding shortages, according to Falk. Every time there was a budget crisis, the easiest thing was to cut back on libraries, including both their maintenance and services. “They were viewed as nonessential compared to courts, police, and fire [departments],” Falk says.

In the 1990s, a budget crisis rolled through California, and county government was hit hard. Around that time, Contra Costa County, where Lafayette is located, “decided to get out of the business of owning libraries,” Falk says, adding that it didn’t want to be solely responsible for all the branches countywide. The city agreed to support the Lafayette location, knowing that it needed a major upgrade. This sparked a larger conversation with the community, and the city began estimating redevelopment costs.

As the city explored ideas for a new library, officials knew they needed a “big idea to capture the imagination of potential donors,” Falk says. “The idea that it would serve as a repository for books wouldn’t cut it — not in this day and age of Barnes and Noble and Amazon and the Internet, with almost instant access to anything.”

Early on, physicist and library board member Roger Falcone brought up the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. It had a basement full of interesting relics, such as an astronaut suit and an insects collection — paraphernalia that Falk says “might make for great traveling exhibits at the library.” Library planners asked the museum if it would want to partner. When administrators agreed, the team brainstormed other organizations that might want to join.

Eventually, the Lafayette Library and Learning Center signed on a dozen science and cultural institutions that now comprise the consortium. The consortium provides programming, publicity, and other forms of support to the library. “Every single institution we contacted thought it was a good idea,” Falk says. “I think that’s the biggest thing we could learn from it — the whole idea of nonprofits working together through a region to leverage assets to benefit each other is very powerful.”

As proof of the appeal of the project, one in every four households in Lafayette contributed to the library’s fundraising effort.

The Center of Experience

The Lafayette library’s rustic-looking interior, which features wood rafters overhead, was inspired in part by the renowned Ahwahnee Hotel at Yosemite. Designers had fun with it in other ways as well. They installed a constellation of circular windows in the children’s area that looks like the Big Dipper. Elsewhere there’s a solar fireplace, display space for “Old Betsy,” a Model T fire truck dating back to 1962, and an artistic nod to the Periodic Table of Elements that honors the late Glenn Seaborg, a Lafayette resident and chemist who discovered 11 of the elements, including plutonium.

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center has a rustic elegance inside.The Lafayette Library and Learning Center has a rustic elegance inside. (Photo: ALA Student Chapter at San Jose State University [CC-BY])

Amy Garmer, who heads the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries in Washington, D.C., says the revamping going on in the physical space of libraries, including that of Lafayette’s, is a testament to how the homogenous, Carnegie Library-style layout — with a reference desk here, copy machine there, and so forth — is on its way out.

Examples of forward-thinking libraries run the gamut: The Southeast Branch of Nashville Public Library, which is in an old J.C. Penny Co. store shared by a community center, has a 24-hour lobby. At the East Roswell Branch of the ­Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, a covered bridge leads visitors to a space that seems to blend in with the trees. And, Denver’s Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch underscores sustainability themes with a three-story “plenum wall” that “acts as a light, water, and air filter for the building,” according to Madden Constance Design Studio, a designer on the project. Each of these libraries has been featured by American Libraries magazine as a part of its annual design showcase.

Despite the flurry of activity in libraries today and their historical importance, administrators are still struggling to convey their relevance to stakeholders and secure funding. Libraries are routinely on the chopping block. Working hours are often limited — evening and Sunday hours can be especially tough to come by. And staffing is regularly subject to reductions. In some places, libraries are simply closing their doors.

This is an all-too familiar saga in New York, where, in recent years, a number of the city’s libraries have been imperiled by government defunding and real estate deals, leading some branches to downsize, consolidate, close, or work with fewer resources. The Donnell library was sold to a developer in 2008 and later torn down, resulting in much hand-wringing. It was recently reincarnated as the 53rd Street Library — a basement space with a fraction of its former holdings.

Several grassroots citizen groups have worked to stop a plan to rid the city’s famous 42nd Street research institution of seven floors of books. Reporter Scott Sherman described this tug-of-war in his 2015 book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library.

Libraries in the city are struggling to make a case for themselves, despite the fact “the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined,” according to a 2015 story in the New York Times.

Part of the problem is that politicians and other decisionmakers are still operating under a 20th-century notion about what libraries have to offer, and “that makes them seem irrelevant,” Garmer says. She chalks it up to the idea that they may not be using the library themselves or may not have school-age children who go to the library.

Garmer sees plenty of parallels to her previous line of work in journalism. Just as in that industry, which is exploring new models to redefine itself and remain relevant, there’s plenty of experimentation happening in libraries nationwide. Likewise, their long-term sustainability remains an open question.

The Aspen Institute, which hosts forums around the country about the future of libraries, began this dialogue back in 2013. The institute wanted to explore what’s happening in libraries and where they’re headed in the long term, as well as provide support for the ever-changing information needs of communities.

At the same time, the Gates Foundation had a global arm focused on raising awareness of the transformation of libraries and creating an understanding and common vision for them. The Aspen Institute and Gates Foundation teamed up, in hopes of making an impact on libraries to help make them sustainable. Since then, the situation has improved as more libraries realize the need to align themselves more directly with their constituencies — but there’s still plenty of work to be done. Over the past few years, the Aspen Institute released several reports about re-envisioning libraries and making them “centers of innovation.” The institute’s latest report describes how libraries can work with the community at large to leverage human capital or find strength in new partnerships.

“People from different walks of life come together, and new ideas can emerge,” Garmer says. “How does the library now become the center of experience, bring value to the community, build on what it has?”

For Susan Hildreth, a professor at the University of Washington Information School and former director of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), this means libraries need to be more comfortable with community engagement. They need training on this front. Some nonprofit organizations, including the ALA and Harwood Institute for Public Innovation in Washington, D.C., have teamed up to provide support.

Similarly, the Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums program has doled out competitive grants for the creation of “innovative teen spaces” in libraries, which specifically relate to learning in the realm of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In St. Paul, Minnesota, a $100,000 grant from the program paved the way for a unique partnership as the library collaborated with the city’s Parks and Recreation department on a lab known as Createch, which is housed in a community center.

Createch, which is dubbed a “creative tinkering space for teens,” provides a space for teens to gather, access various tools, and connect with mentors. At the lab, the lines between the library and the park space are blurred. The roles of the staff overlap as well. Typically, government offices are siloed and don’t necessarily work together, but Createch has changed that.

“I feel like the library and park interaction changed how we think about it,” says Hildreth, explaining that the two offices generally have different mindsets and cultures. “This digital lab brought them together.”

This sense of reinvention is seen in academic libraries, as well. The Shapiro Lab at the University of Michigan was “founded on participatory design,” says Justin Schell, who runs the lab, which is focused on providing an engaging space, services, and support for undergrads. “It’s not just you building something for the user, expecting them to use it the way you want, but instead, working with them every step of the way,” says Schell. “It’s about always engaging people every step of the way.”

The old library model, where people came in just to borrow books, or lingered to study quietly, was rooted in the 19th century. Now, there’s more of a back-and-forth happening and the public has a voice in the aesthetics and functions of libraries. This way, users feel more invested. Likewise, the job of librarians is to facilitate people’s work, which involves a more meaningful interaction with library users.

Thinking Collaboratively

For Bonnie Tijerina, a librarian based in New York and the founder and annual coordinator of the Electronic Resources & Libraries conference in Austin, Texas, the evolution of libraries is an energizing topic. A handful of years ago, Tijerina was inspired to start the Library Idea Drop House after she attended the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference. Tijerina wanted other librarians to get a taste for what was being discussed at the conference, so she rented a house in the area and invited the library crowd to stop by and talk shop.

Right away, the Library Idea Drop House was a hit. Early on, as librarians gathered, a decision was made to livestream the salon-style talks to the broader community. It was so popular that Tijerina has resurrected the Library Idea Drop House — a play off the library term, “book drop” — annually for the past several years. The house is about “how to start changing the mindset, a cultural change in libraries,” she says.

Although separate from SXSW, the house draws a sizable crowd from the conference. It offers a welcome reprieve, says Tijerina. People can settle in on the couch and participate or just listen in as all kinds of interesting conversations take place.

“The main objective is to nurture connections, change the conversation, and get people to see how libraries fit into the bigger picture in terms of technology and its impact on society,” she says.

Bonnie Tijerina, right, founded the Library Idea Drop House, a laidback salon-style place to discuss ideas for libraries, which coincides with SXSW. She’s shown here talking with Judy Siegel about UX in libraries.Bonnie Tijerina, right, founded the Library Idea Drop House, a laidback salon-style place to discuss ideas for libraries, which coincides with SXSW. She’s shown here talking with Judy Siegel about UX in libraries. (Photo: ProQuest + ER&L [CC-BY])

Supporting the New Workforce

At the Lafayette library, there are a variety of resources for jobseekers and small businesses, including a monthly social media program about using social media platforms to effectively market and grow a business. The series is the result of a partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce.

Volunteer opportunities at the library, for students aged 13 and up, give young people work experience. “The level of training we provide, the discipline we’re instilling is helpful when they’re applying to colleges or trying to nab their first paying jobs,” says the library’s executive director Beth Needel.

She adds that the space “augments learning in the community” and gives people a place to go.

“It’s what libraries do best,” she says. “Being responsive and understanding who their patrons are and providing programs and training of greatest interest [to the community].”

This community responsiveness was especially important and evident at the height of the Great Recession: As layoffs mounted, libraries all over the nation formed job clubs. Job seekers received help writing business plans and resumes, and landing job interviews. Libraries became a key meeting place for entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop shops, says Sari Feldman of the ALA, explaining that this service ushered in a new era for libraries wherein “learning and ideas and creativity are exchanged, not just held.” These clubs afforded (and still do) a valuable opportunity to network.

Now, many libraries, big and small, are going beyond job clubs, establishing business centers and coworking spaces. Miguel Figueroa, who helms the Center for the Future of Libraries, which opened in May 2014, hopes that libraries will continue to be seen as important “third spaces,” in between home and work, where people have the freedom to engage in public programs, lectures, book discussions, slow reading, and adult coloring. “More libraries are investing in those unplugged, digital detox activities,” he says.

More libraries are reaching out to millennials, offering special happy-hour programs at local bars and eateries. These provide spontaneous access to anyone who happens to be around at that moment. In general, millennials are more open to novel, quirky experiences — like bike or pop-up libraries — than prior generations who view the library as a fixed entity. Millennials tend to enjoy the serendipity of a library in a surprising place, Figueroa says.

A Sense of Community Ownership

Since opening, the Lafayette community has taken ownership of its library and the number of people who come through its doors everyday has more than tripled. Falk explains that residents and others from surrounding areas hang out at the library, as opposed to a shopping mall, and that real estate agents point to the library as a selling point for the area. This is quite a turnaround for a once-fledgling and literally crumbling institution.

Lafayette’s head librarian, Vickie Sciacca, who has been in the field since 1986, describes the library as a vibrant place to be every day where, previously, going to the library was a “very quiet, isolated experience.”

“When people drive through here, they see [the library] as a testimony to what they believe and what they want to honor — having multiple generations participate on a daily basis, with lifelong learning going on at the same time as storytime,” Sciacca says.

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