Libraries aren’t just for reading, but what else are they for?

When I was young, my mother served on the board of our local library. I have wonderful memories of going to the central branch downtown, a beautiful 1939 building, and venturing to the children’s section in the basement. These visits must have started before I could read, because looking at old stereoscope cards through the View-master was a key form of entertainment while I waited during her meetings. Books were also a big part of the visits, especially once the “new” central library opened (I won’t say how many years ago). My relationship with libraries has evolved through my years as a reader, student, teacher, and mother. And, of course, libraries have evolved too, as do most institutions. In my last post I wrote about how things change with time, whether we realize it or not.

Libraries in particular have been getting some attention in social media in the US lately, due to a short lived article on Forbes opining they had outlived their usefulness and were a poor use of taxpayer dollars. This view was quickly rebutted in a number of outlets, which rightly argued that democratization of knowledge is in fact very worthwhile.

I had been thinking about libraries prior to this donnybrook, primarily in the context the challenges facing them as they face the need to encompass a broader ranges of needs that still include books but also much more. I have been part of a pro bono project run by the local User Experience Professionals' Association on behalf of a local community college. The project is based around the library and how to better optimize it for those diverse needs (without spending money). The observations I made there, as well as my reflections on the library at the state university where I teach have highlighted how much more a library needs to provide than when I was a student, and how and if we should define the purpose of a library in the 21st century.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the history of libraries or their usage, beyond my years as a student and my own love of reading, which still includes frequent trips to my local public library. I know I am not the first to muse on this subject, and in fact there is a whole field of library science and library and media specialists actively pursuing this topic. My own perspective is to place this in the broader context of any seemingly immutable institutions that are, or at least should be, subject to adaptation to those they serve.

To that end, here are some scenes from libraries that reflect current populations and the challenges of serving everyone.

Scene 1: State University Library. On the ground floor, there is a Starbucks on the right and a circulation desk on the left as you walk in. Starbucks has a line, and circulation usually has no patrons. Once inside, the ground floor has a lot of comfortable chairs and work tables. Today there is a visiting therapy dog for any students who need some comfort.

Scene 2: Same Library, third floor classroom (one of 6 on this floor), finals week. Classroom scheduled for exam in a ½ hour, but whiteboard is filled with equations (not relevant to the exam in question) and various papers, keys, computers strewn about the room. Students had been using the room to study and had left for a break and left all their stuff. Two came in as exam started and were promptly shooed out, their companion entered 10 minutes later interrupting the exam.

Scene 3: Community College Library. Two stories, very open with a large staircase between levels. Lots of signs reminding people to be    quiet, including stop lights that indicate high noise levels. Outside the library is a large open staircase filled with different groups of students talking—the college is contained in one large building and there aren’t many places to go to socialize. Inside the library the traffic ebbs and flows, as more people come in the ambient noise rises. Various study rooms fill up, and despite wall, noise spills out. Students chat at a table with a sign that says “quiet study area.” Many of the students in study carrels are wearing headphones.

Scene 4: Same library, over time, as described by a student worker. Computers and printers get a lot of use, there is heavy wear and tear with a lot of printer jams. Students get 500 pages to print a semester, but can request more in 100 page increments. He noted that many students do not know the options available to them in terms of printing from various programs and devices, and often ask to borrow equipment like flash drives and charging cables. He thinks that I the future they should have things like a 3D print station because, in his words, “more people need to find more ways to use the library.”

And that is where I will leave things, for all to think on the more people, and more ways.