Imagine a Very Different Public Library

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

If you live in Monroe County NY, and especially if you reside in Rochester, you have an immediate opportunity to weigh in on what you want your public library to be. Take a brief survey, developed by CGR, about how to shape Rochester Public Library’s future: www.cgr.org/RochesterPublicLibrary .

Kirstin PryorJust what do we want from a bricks and mortar public library in our digital age? Just over half of Americans, age 16 and up, visited one in the past year, according to the most recent Pew Internet & American Life national survey, and 91% of visitors called libraries an important part of their community.

Further, they said they value, in order of importance, books to borrow, reference librarians and free public access to computers and the Internet. Clearly, most of the traditional aspects of libraries—that quiet hush, the many stacks, the quintessential librarian, and (for some decades now) the rows of computers, matter to a great many of us.

The question communities everywhere are grappling with is how to balance the traditional library with digital world realities. What used to require a reference librarian is now often a quick Google or Wikipedia search. Many of our book recommendations come from booksellers’ “customers who bought, also liked” features or Facebook posts. And countless books, articles and newspapers that used to be print only are now downloadable to e-readers and smartphones.

What should the library of the future look like? Folks who study such things (the American Library Association for one) have articulated 4 continuums for what libraries could be and what services they could offer. In essence, they define the debate communities should be having.

Continuum 1: totally physical library totally virtual library

As more content moves online and more people have mobile access through smartphones, do we need physical libraries with physical material for patrons to access information or reading materials?

Continuum 2: individual focus community focus

Should libraries be set up mainly with quiet places for individuals to read and study?  Or should they provide community meeting spaces and be centers of community activity? As the world moves increasingly toward interactive, collaborative work, should our libraries accommodate  groups working around computers, entrepreneurs networking and even friends socializing?

Continuum 3: collection creation

Libraries are currently repositories of information and texts, but as YouTube, social media and independent publishing explode, should libraries provide space for creating content? Think recording studios and computers with digital publishing tools.

Continuum 4: archive portal

Libraries have traditionally owned and housed the materials and information patrons want to access. Now imagine a library staffed with librarians using computers that provide a portal to resources that are no longer located on site.

Examples of the ways libraries have changed or could change their services to evolve along these continuums may help you rethink your traditional view of your library. Imagine library vending machines sprinkled around a city, similar to “Redbox” for movie rentals. Library “outposts” that offer computer access, online services and small rotating collections in locations such as malls, rec centers or community gathering places. “Text-a-librarian” services, where a reference librarian responds within 10 minutes.

Thinking about the role public libraries have always played in building an educated populace underscores that the mission of public libraries remains critical. But figuring out what we want them to be is a vitally important community conversation.

If you’re a Monroe County resident, join that conversation through this survey.

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