What’s the future for libraries?

Roles, purpose changing in the digital age.


“It’s about to get loud,” a Twin Oaks Branch librarian warned patrons on a recent afternoon just before the start of Minecraft Club, where more than a dozen kids gathered to play the popular video game at the South Austin library.

When the children trickled in, they buzzed around the cluster of computers, cutting the stillness with the sounds of their giggles and excited chatter. For those patrons seeking silence, the librarian signaled to a quiet room nearby.

“Libraries aren’t that place where an old lady wearing a bun is telling you to ‘Shh!’ anymore,” says Mindy Reed, managing librarian and bookstore manager at Recycled Reads, a zero-waste retail store that is part of and directly benefits the Austin library system.

As more people switch to reading e-books and research information using their iPhones, what’s the future for the traditional library? It’s a question that has sparked national discussion in recent years as library professionals look at the changing role of libraries in the digital age.

Across the country — including in Austin — academic, public and school libraries are going through a kind of renaissance, reinventing themselves as they experiment with their services and spaces. At some libraries you can now build custom creations with 3-D printers, run your business from a shared work space or even record a music album.

Reed calls the transformation “the second Gutenberg revolution,” referencing the creator of the printing press. And like any revolution, it also comes with some fears and concerns about a future that’s rapidly changing.

When she gives presentations about the topic, she typically throws out a few sentences like: It’ll destroy culture. It’ll make people lazy. Then she asks people to guess what these sentences are about. “Internet! Television!,” people will answer.

Reed says these statements were actually made about Gutenberg when the masses could have access to anything in print. “Many of the things that people are concerned about around technology or how information is dispersed is the same as people felt 500 years ago,” she says.

There’s a sentimentality around the book, she says, “because of how we grew up with books in our homes and what the reading experience has meant to us.”

So libraries often play a tricky balancing act, providing what communities still need now while also shifting toward the demands on the horizon.

In 2013, San Antonio opened the country’s first bookless library. In Austin, in addition to the physical libraries, patrons also have access to a virtual library, which offers everything from downloadable books to access to magazines and newspapers from around the world.

Reed foresees the publishing distribution model changing in the future, but says books and printed materials aren’t going away entirely anytime soon. “No one has to worry,” she says.

“We’re interested in providing the content in whatever container people are using at the time,” adds Kanya Lyons, Austin Public Library spokeswoman.“We’re not pushing e-books, and we’re not saying we’re not going to have regular books. It’s what the people want.”

Capturing community spirit

As more people want to talk, learn and share at the library, it’s becoming less of a repository for information and increasingly tapping into the community spirit by bringing people together.

Last year, the Ferguson Public Library gained national attention when it kept its doors open following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the grand jury decision not to charge the police officer who shot him.

When riots and unrest swept the city and caused schools to close, the library instead put out a call for volunteers on social media. It held impromptu classes for students, provided space for community leaders to meet and put together healing kits for children.

News of the library’s efforts quickly went viral and donations poured in from across the country as people recognized the powerful connection a library can have with its community.

Community is at the heart of plans for Austin’s new central library, which is expected to open in 2016. It’ll be a “library of the future,” which emphasizes technology as well as community gathering spaces like atriums, a gallery, bookstore and cafe. Movable bookshelves will give the library wiggle room in case it eventually needs more space. Reading porches overlooking Shoal Creek and Lady Bird Lake promise to keep tranquil nooks alive.

“We can download all the books we want,” Lyons says. “But people also want to interact. And without the people, it’s just a storehouse of stuff.”

Local library leaders took a trip to Amsterdam to visit a “library of the future” and consulted with a library futurist for inspiration on cutting edge ideas.

But library users may have already noticed their neighborhood branches beginning to incorporate innovative services and programs over the years. In 2009, instead of hosting book sales for the library’s overstock and outdated books, the public library launched the Recycled Reads bookstore on Burnet Road.

Since its launch, the bookstore has become an incubator for the library by testing out different programs, from interactive puppet shows to upcycling workshops. If programs are successful there, they’re often replicated in the library’s branches.

This community center approach to libraries actually brings them back to their roots. Reed says her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Poland and went to the New York Public Library to learn English and take citizenship classes. “That’s where they went to become a part of the American fabric … so not only is it the future of libraries, but it’s the tradition of libraries.”

Creating at the library

In 2013, the American Library Association launched the Center for the Future of Libraries, which focuses on identifying emerging trends relevant to libraries, librarians, and the communities they serve.

“As we become less about what we have for people and more about … a place where we’re connecting people to ideas and experiences, then we needed a center to identify trends, support innovation and best practices,” says ALA President Sari Feldman.

One of those trends includes the growing maker movement. As people’s desire to create things has swept the nation in recent years, makerspaces have played a crucial role in libraries.

When Wooldridge Elementary School librarian Elizabeth Mikeska-Benfield stepped into the Austin Mini Maker Faire last year, she didn’t think it was for her. She had accompanied her husband, who was presenting a project there, and initially thought it was a “high-tech thing.”

“After seeing all the areas of making, I thought, ‘Wait, I can do this,’” she says. Mikeska-Benfield went back to her school library and created a low-budget makerspace, where students could build and tinker with mostly donated materials she collected.

Each month, her library hosts Maker Week, where students have done everything from built robots out of recycled materials to create stop animation projects.

When students at the makerspace tackle a project, Mikeska-Benfield says she tries to let them figure things out on their own as much as possible and take risks.

“I feel like our kids now want you to give them the directions for everything,” she says. “But once they felt that freedom to make mistakes, they trusted themselves. [Makerspaces] give them the opportunity to see their potential to be engineers, computer programmers, and teaches them to think a lot bigger.”

She admits that some school librarians may be hesitant about committing to a makerspace in their own libraries because they can be messy and loud, but “the library is perfect place for it because everyone has access to it and people already come in searching for more information.”

Transforming academic libraries

Thinking about how existing spaces can be retrofitted to embrace ideas for the future also extends to academic libraries, where technology-rich collaborative spaces help the library serve as an extension of the classroom.

“We’ve moved into the age of imagination,” says Lorraine Haricombe, vice provost and director of libraries at the University of Texas. “If we don’t change, we’ll be irrelevant to the needs of new generations.”

On Aug. 25, a new Learning Commons will open at the University of Texas’ Perry-Castañeda Library. It’s the University of Texas Libraries’ largest transformation since the construction of the PCL, according to the university. The 20,000-square-foot renovation brings modern classrooms, a media lab, consultation spaces and a writing lab to the library, where they’ll also take a fresh look at programming with workshops exploring everything from digital media tools to public speaking.

As one of the nation’s largest academic research library systems, UT’s motto, “What Starts Here Changes the World,” resonates with Haricombe, who says that forward-looking libraries should create opportunities for librarians to become more involved in the critical research that faculty are doing and “embed librarians in the whole life cycle of teaching.”

Libraries of the future

This fall, the ALA will launch a public awareness campaign called “Libraries Transform.” It’s an effort to shift the mindset that “libraries are obsolete or nice to have,” Feldman says, “to libraries are essential.”

There are already glimpses of what libraries are becoming, from wedding dressmakers working out of a library makerspace in Chattanooga to aspiring producers learning podcasting basics in an Oak Hill library.

And if the library can lend books, why can’t they also lend tools, toys or baking equipment? “The whole concept of sharing and lending going beyond just one artifact was a huge trend at (the ALA conference in San Francisco this year),” Reed says.

“None of us know what the future holds,” Lyons says. “But we’re going to be here as a community space listening to what people need.”


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