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Libraries undergoing radical change to remain relevant

Under threat from the internet, librarians are discovering who whole new range of services to offer clients

Benjamin GilliesWINNIPEG, MB, Mar 29, 2014/ Troy Media/ – It is safe to say the library is one of North Americans’ most valued public institutions. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center published a study revealing 90 per cent of us would be upset if our local library closed. Supporting this position, according to a report put out by Lumos Research, Canadian per capita library usage increased 45 per cent between 2002 and 2012.

Clearly, citizens appreciate these spaces of learning and exploration. Yet, the way we learn and explore is changing, so libraries must similarly evolve to meet the needs of 21st century society. While they have traditionally been warehouses of information, for a growing percentage of the population, the Internet now fills this role; as such, what new value-added services can a library provide? A number of librarians are tackling this question, with inspiring results.

One may not often think of Chattanooga, Tennessee, as being on the forefront of major change. Last year, however, its flagship downtown library branch underwent major renovation, clearing out its entire fourth floor of books to install a tech laboratory fostering creativity and innovation. The 14,000 square foot-area now boasts 3-D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, and advanced video- and audio-production software. It also offers rooms to conduct business meetings and workshops, and hosts classes where patrons can develops skills in entrepreneurship and technology use.

The visionary behind these changes is the new director, Corine Hill, who felt her library needed to become a community workshop filled with the tools of the knowledge economy. “With this space, what we’re trying to do is acknowledge that access to the commons is no longer a read-only environment”, say Meg Backus, who runs the fourth floor, “there needs to be production for true access to happen, with the ability to create a video, learn how to make a website, or access software that can create 3-D files”.

Hill is certainly not the only one with big dreams for libraries. Across North America, citizens are asking how these public assets can find new ways to strengthen their relevance in a digital world. A library in Overland Park, Kansas, for example, last year designed a popular seminar in hog butchering, which also discussed local food movements and humanely-raised meats, meant to appeal to the rural clientele. Back in Chattanooga, Tiffany Robinson, who works with an angel fund to help female entrepreneurs get off the ground, dreams of partnering with her library so it becomes a place where mothers with an idea for a start-up can work and access business resources, while also offering books and reading programs to keep their children entertained.

These initiatives are not about spending more money or taking up more space; rather, they are about ensuring existing resources are used in the most efficient manner possible. The growing popularity of e-books, for example – today more than a third of North Americans use a Kobo or Kindle, compared to just six per cent back in 2010 – means libraries do not need to keep as many hard copies on hand, freeing up physical space for activities other than storage. Similarly, a number of librarians are now reconsidering whether paying for little-used academic journals and huge reference tomes is the best use of public dollars. While these resources certainly have a place in a university’s stacks, shifting more funds within public library budgets towards investments in new creative technologies can give citizens a chance to try their hand at quite literally building and designing their dreams.

Be it in information or physical products, the way humans share and connect is profoundly different today than it was even a decade ago. The Internet has become a place where people around the world can come together in real time. Meanwhile, more and more North Americans – notably baby boomers, who have finished their career and are looking for fulfilling work in retirement – are starting their own small businesses, often facilitated by the world wide web that offers a global customer base. Libraries can and should remain places that foster a love of reading and a wealth of books (both physical and digital) will always be their foundation, but by additionally carving out a niche as centres offering cutting-edge tools of collaboration and creativity, they can remain relevant within these shifting realities. No longer just providing citizens with knowledge, they will also hold the resources we need to apply that knowledge in new and meaningful ways.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

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