When was the last time you went to the library and for what purpose?
For what purpose do libraries exist? For books, right?
The purpose of libraries has always been a hub for information. Our need for information has not changed just the way we receive the information has.
Five years ago Forbes published an article asking this very question, “Will Public Libraries Become Extinct” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/10/02/will-public-libraries-become-extinct/#2d5f14b3693c) and the answer in the article was yes, in fact the prediction was that we would see a decline within 5 years and within 15 years, poof they will be gone.
Just 5 years prior to this prediction the Pew Research Center released a study that indicated that “Libraries drew visits by more than half of Americans (53%) in the past year for all kinds of purposes, not just the problems mentioned in the survey. And young adults in tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30) led the pack. Compared with their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and in general patronage for any purpose. Furthermore, young adults are the most likely to say they will use libraries in the future when they encounter problems: 40% of Gen Y say they would do that, compared with 20% of those above age 30 who say they would go to a library.” (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/677/in-search-of-solutions)
We have seen a surge in library usage since this study as libraries helped people everywhere during the “Great Recession” and continue to be not only valid but thriving. Why is this?
Libraries are way more than books, they are vibrant community centers with programs and activities full of life, discovery, and excitement. Today’s libraries are places people are engaging and learning about new technology from 3D printers and virtual reality to coding and robotics. In addition to this discovery and excitement libraries are a resource for finding employment, obtaining new skills, and yes still a great place to find a good book.
Library Directors everywhere are implementing ways that are helping millions of people throughout the world everyday and are doing it in unimaginable ways. They are helping people and communities financially, socially, and environmentally. Librarians roles have expanded from helping us find information to helping us sort through the onslaught of information to find what is valid for our purposes.
The Urban Libraries Council released a study “Making Cities Stronger” which “finds that the return on investment in public libraries not only benefits individuals, but also strengthens community capacity to address urgent issues related to economic development.” (https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/46006/1001075-Making-Cities-Stronger.PDF)
If technology is the downfall of the library, if Amazon and the digital revolution of books will replace libraries then why is one of the founders of such technology still at the heart of libraries? Microsoft guru Bill Gates has established a foundation to help libraries throughout the United States and throughout the world bringing this technology to everyone in diverse ways through libraries.
Well if Bill gates is on the library scene what about Apple? If you haven’t been to a library lately you are missing all of the early literacy learning, fun, and games happening at the iPad tables Yet Apple’s influence in libraries goes way beyond the technological wonders they have produced. Apple has been successful at creating an experience that crosses over devices and platforms, a consistent and great experience of information at your finger tips. Wow, a library at your fingertips. So why do you need the library?
In addition to all of the great resources, programs and activities in libraries they are also all about people. As human beings we need other people, we are social beings.
“Wi-Fi, laptops and cell phones make it possible to work from just about anywhere these days. They've helped people leave the office and work from the comfort of their living rooms or corner coffee shops. . . But now, an increasing number of Americans are looking for something in between, Community. . . Newly mobile tech workers with laptops liked their freedom but still missed the human interaction they got from going to an office. So they formed meet-up groups: casual, once-a-week deals at different locations — sometimes even people's living rooms.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122252297)
Technology gives people a platform but not a place, people need a place and the library is increasingly becoming that place whether for business incubation and networking activities or for learning and growing.
Apple also delivers this technology in a well designed way that enhances that experience. Library buildings are much like the Apple Device, they are the physical means through which experiences are delivered. A library needs inspiring spaces to deliver an inspiring experience. Spaces in buildings are a significant part of our environment and they have an influence on how we feel and how we act. They can be inspiring, full of natural light and excitement.
Mayors, City Councils, and Library Directors everywhere are still allocating millions and millions of dollars every year to building and growing libraries. The Forbes article said “To be clear, I agree that libraries may stick around longer than the underlying consumer behavior supporting them. Why? Because funding libraries is a political, not an economic decision. Nevertheless, I believe strongly that public libraries will turn into ghost towns in five to fifteen years, at which point it will become very difficult to justify funding them and keeping them open. (https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/10/02/will-public-libraries-become-extinct/#260d7867693c)
Well it has been five years and while economic recessions did reduce funds in some areas for the operation of libraries just when communities needed them the most they are back and stronger than ever. Not because libraries are a political decision but because libraries really are an economic decision to the vitality and growth of the social and economic health of our communities.
While libraries are great places to be and many communities are funding new and inspiring places others are still providing these great resources and experiences despite their lack of inspiring spaces and in some cases hardly any spaces.
While some libraries have it all many don’t have the needed space to provide the community with their full potential of social, economic, and recreational investments that are proven to give a strong return of investment on our society.
There are three major problems that every Library Director planning for the future of expanded or new buildings are experiencing; unpredictable economic escalation, public and political support, and knowing when professional consulting services are needed or whether they can do it on their own. Often to their surprise librarians are very resourceful and can do much more on their own than they often think. Librarians, the finders of the right information, are also the finders of creativity when faced with few resources they transform spaces they have into teen hangouts, robotics laboratories, virtual reality rooms, and yes still, even story time.
Predicting the market and understanding the future economy is something many try to do unsuccessfully. The simple answer is libraries, just everyone should with their personal budgets and planning, create contingencies in budgets, schedules, and space planning so you are prepared to meet the unexpected future.
Despite the predictions of library extinction libraries still have great public support, however the political and public support increases greatly as they are properly involved in the planning of their own libraries future. The key to continued support of libraries is engagement equals ownership. As humans we have an innate need to feel wanted and valued, to know that what we say matters. When libraries engage communities by asking for their input and then report back to them how that input was incorporated into their programs, activities, or design of the spaces and buildings then the community gains ownership which translates to increased support.
While libraries and librarians do a lot there is a time in their process which professionals can greatly increase the efficiency of planning and designing new spaces. Libraries must find those professionals who are creative and visionary. Those who understand the true meaning of the 21st Century Library. Those who understand people, place, and platform. Those who know how to remember people, after all are we not all about people.
Libraries are for everyone, they are a place as much as they are a vehicle for delivering information, they are a place of learning, of community, of gathering. They are a place for people to be inspired, to be social, and to open doors to new worlds just waiting for you to find.
Call to Action: Download this “How to Build a Library” checklist for a guide to the funding, politics, and design of public libraries. http://architectjeff.com/librarybuilding/