How libraries are reinventing themselves for the future

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It’s a tough time to be a public library. With local governments cutting back on hours or shuttering branches, many librarians from across the country will still be making the trek to Anaheim, Calif., this weekend for the American Library Association’s annual conference, where, amid festive appearances by big-name authors like John Irving and George R.R. Martin, attendees will be sitting in on strategy sessions such as ”Keep the Fight Going: Libraries Fight Back” and “Shift Happens: Leading an Evolution.” Feeling squeezed by shrinking budgets and greater demand for their services, feisty librarians are coming up with clever solutions like the tiny outpost the Clinton Community Library in upstate New York opened not too long ago using an old phone booth and a solar panel. Here are five other ways libraries are doing more with less.

Beyond the Book Mobile

Today’s libraries aren’t just trying to fulfill what a March study by the Pew Charitable Trusts calls the institutions’ “shadow mandate” of bridging the widening gaps in social services that used to be provided by non-profits and public agencies. Libraries are also trying to meet people where they are. The cash-strapped Free Library of Philadelphia, a stalwart system founded in 1891, has set up six “Hot Spots” to expand its reach in underserved areas. It’s much cheaper to open these freestanding mini-libraries, which are equipped with computers, printers, and a reference collection, inside facilities owned by community organizations than it is to open a new branch. In a similar move, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has opened what it calls a “library without walls” in the Pittsburgh Public Market in an effort to deliver library services on the weekends in a place where a lot of people do their food-shopping. Some libraries are even venturing outdoors. In response to recent branch closures in Detroit, the University of Michigan this spring partnered with students at a local elementary school to set up six outdoor libraries, whose waterproof bookcases, unlike book mobiles, don’t come with expensive gas bills.

E-Books, Yes, But Also Cake Pans, Toys and Other Non-Traditional Offerings

According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, more than two-thirds of the 9,000 or so libraries in the U.S. are lending out e-books. But as libraries try to expand their digital offerings — publishers are particularly wary of these institutions eating into e-book sales of new titles — many libraries have started lending offbeat, non-digital items too. A number of libraries now circulate cake pans, including the P.D. Brown Memorial Library in Waldorf, Maryland, and several branches of Iowa public libraries. The Lopez Island Library in Washington lends musical instruments, and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Public Library has a toy-lending collection to promote active learning for children. Many of these unconventional items have been donated to their respective libraries by local community members. In Cicero, N.Y., LibraryFarm has turned a half-acre of land owned by the Northern Onondaga Public Library into a community garden, where anyone can “check out” a plot of land for free or work on a shared plot. With its mission to promote food literacy LibraryFarm also offers classes on composting, pest control, and recipes utilizing food from the garden.

From Dewey Decimal to Hacklabs and 3-D Printers

Some libraries are carving out makerspaces, public-access laboratories that allow people to try out whiz-bang technology and create new things with it. While a user gets to keep his creation, an additional copy often becomes part of the library’s collection, adding to its own local archive. The Fab Lab in the Free Library in Fayetteville, N.Y., is a good approximation of MIT’s info-tech labs. Funded by state and private grants, as well as in-kind support and an online fundraising campaign, the space encompasses a collection of machines designed to make physical objects, including a 3-D printer that can be used to build any object, from a piece of jewelry to a chess set, out of plastic up to 5 ft. tall. Chicago’s YOUMedia lab, housed in a branch of the Chicago Public Library, is a tech-oriented space specifically targeted to adolescents. To promote creative thinking, teens are encouraged to make podcasts and blogs or to compose an audio track on the in-house recording studio. And in a nod to the surging interest in self-publishing, the Sacramento Public Library has launched a community publishing center called the I Street Press, which can print and bind books for patrons and offers workshops on how to write and lay out a book. Classes are free of charge and books cost 2 cents per page to print, plus a setup fee of roughly $100 — which could provide a nice bit of revenue for the library.

Keeping the Doors Open

As municipalities slash funding, libraries are looking for ways to remain available to their constituents despite drastic staff cuts and reduced branch hours. In Trenton, shuttered branches are being reopened and renamed “learning center libraries” that are staffed largely by volunteers. (Technically, they can’t be called libraries unless they are administered by the library board.) The increasing reliance on unpaid workers, including part-time volunteers and even schoolchildren willing to lend a hand, can’t replace the know-how of an experienced librarian, but it can at least to keep some of the services going. The use of volunteers will be a key discussion topic at the conference in Anaheim, and the issue over privatizing is also likely to be a point of contention. Not surprisingly, many librarians are opposed to outsourcing their public institutions to private companies, when it is unclear if it will result in meaningful cost savings. But at this point, any option is on the table if it can help keep the doors open.

Texting Your Local Librarian

Reference librarians are trained to sift through reams of information and locate data in a way that Google can’t, and harnessing these human resources is the aim of the Text a Librarian mobile reference service, which is now used in more than 800 libraries around the country. Participating libraries advertise a phone number to which patrons can text questions during library hours and get answers from librarians; apart from standard text messaging rates, the service is free for users. The Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library is likewise using its website to let users ask questions during live-chats with a librarian. Contra Costa County Library in California has launched a Snap and Go campaign that enables smartphone users to snap a QR code from a library poster they see around town and download an audiobook without having to step foot in the library.  And at least one library is experimenting with recommendation engines. The Gimme! mobile app developed by Arizona’s Scottsdale Public Library is powered by staffers’ recommendations as well as data from the library catalog to provide personalized suggestions of good books to check out, as a hyperlocal alternative to Amazon.


Allison Berry