Future Library Now

If you were designing a library today from scratch, what would be its central outcomes and services for what set of users? This question resurfaces from time to time in my mind as I review the evolving ecosystem of users, information, and technology whether in a library-specific context or other environments where these dynamics are at play. The thoughts below are written in sand: wind and water will rearrange the letters and words in a short length of time, I suspect.

I begin this thought exercise by defining terms and articulating assumptions. I assume the library serves a specific population of users in a local, geographic context. I also assume the library has both a physical and virtual presence: a place where people gather along with digital-only communication channels. When I talk about the primary people using the library, I choose the term "users." Potential synonyms include patrons, members, participants, information seekers, and customers. As for the "L" word, I will use library until a different word is justified by the ecosystem of users-outcomes-services such that "library" no longer adequately covers the range of meaning. By "outcomes" I mean a desired state of affairs regarding individuals, families, and communities in contrast to the current state of affairs. Such a state of affairs may include ways of thinking, new opportunities, personal transformation, societal advances, among other lofty ideals. Outcomes are different than outputs. I'll use the word "technology" here to include a wide range of objects including a building, computers, digital manifestations of information, and a range of physical tools, supplies, and equipment.

This hypothetical library from scratch has a set of users with needs, wants, and expectations. Who they are and how they hope to interact with the services, information, and technology of the library needs to be clearly identified and articulated as the foundation of the design process. An existing public library engaged in an imagination exercise of their future library has a historical understanding of their user base: demographics, use patterns of materials and services, requests for new services, excluded users (intentionally or unintentionally), and anticipated new user base. A brand new library outside the typical formats of either a public or academic library will need to identify its intended, predicted user base. A critical step is to engage with the known or anticipated user base: listening actively to a range of users in order to substantively understand their needs, wants, and expectations (and feedback to the users what you heard and how you integrated, or not, their ideas).

Part of that conversation with users includes illuminating a set of desired outcomes. Users may typically and naturally speak of activities and outputs related to their interaction with the library's services, information, and technology. These practical expressions of activities have at their root some personal or communal desire. General outcomes may include users who are more informed, transformed, and able to make decisions based on a wide range of reputable information resources. Other outcomes are possible such as a increased skill in creative production of culture and art such as storytelling, music, or fine art. An outcome might be users who are thoughtful, reflective, and listening individuals. In some communities, and desired state of affairs (outcome) is that under represented voices are included in community conversations. Or consider an outcome of "hungry" people and communities are "fed" (with broad meanings to those words). One last example (for now): community members are reading, culturally, politically, and digitally literate.

Defining the user base too narrowly risks setting unreasonable barriers to some potential users, whether intentional or not. If the library is not meant to be all things to all people then by definition the set of users is exclusive. If "exclusive" is too derogatory a word because it connotes an intentional refusal to allow users access based on some prejudice, then describing the intended set of users in conjunction with the desired outcomes and services may justify a more narrow user base. For example, a university library provides a wide range of services for students; a subset of those services are available to non-students who enter the library building itself. There's no discrimination against the non-students because one of the library's main constituent user group is students, not the general public.

A library provides a set of services in conjunction with information in a variety of formats (e.g., print, electronic, unpublished, tools, instruments, people) using a range of technologies. The exact nature of each of these three elements (services, information, technology) is dependent upon the users in mind and the intended outcomes of the library. That is, materials and activities fit into the specific purpose and function of the individual library. Personally, I value the human connection in a shared physical space. Consequently, I think of a local, place-based library rather than a virtual, all-digital one. Such a library has a spatial sphere of influence in a city, town, or retreat. Of course, non-local residents may be users, and users may participate in library-supported services remotely. The primary emphasis, however, is on services for a local or localized set of users engaging with personnel and other users in-person in the library.

Before describing a dreamed-from-scratch library, some library stereotypes from which we can break free. First, libraries as a repository or collection of information resources sounds so passive. A storehouse of books is not what a library is, it is what most libraries have, true. It's purpose is not to store books or information full stop. Neither is a library just the building which houses collections, personnel, users, and tools. Libraries should be dynamic confluences of people, information, and ideas Mathews, Brian, Stefanie Metko, and Patrick Tomlin. 2018. “Empowerment, Experimentation, Engagement: Embracing Partnership Models in Libraries.” EDUCAUSE Review 53 (3). https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/5/empowerment-experimentation-engagement-embracing-partnership-models-in-libraries. Another stereotype of libraries is that of a no-talking space. Yes, quiet spaces in libraries are crucial but only one aspect: libraries need active, noisy, a little bit messy spaces where people interact and talk...out loud.

When I imagine designing and building a new library, I first think of the intended users, then their desired outcomes, the niche the library will fill (for this exercise, I am not dreaming of a be-all library), and some ideal location for the physical plant. All of these elements, of course, are interrelated. One dream scenario I have is a residential library for people interested in exploring ideas around walking, pilgrimage, backpacking and how these activities encourage health for the whole person. The library would be in the mountains, on a lake, and accessible by train (it's a dream, after all).

To encourage and support creativity, the library would have several studios: video creation and editing (along with tools to support virtual meetings); music recording and editing; fine art creation (e.g., painting, sculpting, pottery); and a commercial kitchen. The library would have spaces for quiet reading and reflection along with a theater for lectures, film presentations, and live music. In the warm seasons, the architecture would support a comfortable flow of activities from inside to outside, the simplest example being a sliding door opening up to an outdoor patio. Furniture in this library will be mobile and flexible, in order to allow for change when uses and spaces need updating. Book shelves will be low and on casters, for example.

Users will bring their own devices such as notebooks and tablets, and the library will provide accessible computer workstations. The collection will consist of physical and digital objects, the latter organized and described in such a way that search and browse capabilities are intuitive for a range of users with differing digital literacy skills. The tool supporting the collection will permit users to create ad-hoc collections, save items for later, organize resources in a customized fashion, and in other ways cut/copy/paste the collection into creative representations pertinent to how each user desires to interact with and save resources for later use. In other words, users are curators creating information exhibits.

Additional furniture needs include large tables so users can layout maps in order to route plan their next trip. The library would have a large format plotter to print customized maps on-demand. Water-proof and tear-resistant paper would be used for customized hiking maps, printed in a variety of customized sizes and scales.

Library users will be invited and encouraged to make their creations available to other users. The customized map, for example, might wind up in the collection, with a trip report where that map was used added later. Similarly, the user-created granola bar recipe would become part of the collection.

These are some library ideas currently in my brain. I brainstormed the following two lists while generating ideas and notes for the above post.

Functions of a Library

  • information sharing; free to borrow
  • gathering space for groups
  • creative creation space and tools (3D printer, artistic outputs)
  • programs and presentations: speakers, movie, artistic offerings such as music or fine art
  • training and teaching
  • equipment sharing (garden tools, bike share, home improvement tools)
  • food selling (cafe)
  • job training
  • social service referral
  • general community referral service
  • space for individual study, reflection, learning, creating
  • food distribution (kids at least)
  • knowledge production
  • informal child watch

Institutions with Overlapping Functions to a Library

  • book store
  • cafe
  • park
  • community center
  • gym, yoga studio
  • school
  • co-working space
  • museum
  • archive
  • hotel lobby
  • performing arts center
  • movie theater
  • music concert with live acts
  • religious building sanctuary
  • retreat center
  • visitor center
  • bike shop
  • publisher
  • social service agency
  • vocational development center
  • refugee resettlement office
  • homeless shelter
  • bathroom facility
  • copy center
  • food pantry, soup kitchen
  • senior center
  • after school care center