libraries FEATURE
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How the digitization of libraries is evolving library spaces and building communities.

It’s easy to forget that once upon a time books were the world’s original information technology. Before the advent of the internet, all librarians needed to be knowledgeable about primarily was authors, titles and subject matter. Now that libraries are becoming increasingly digitized and more community-based, they’re calling for modern librarians to add tech and maker know-how to their skill set. Today, the three biggest needs library visitors have include materials, expert help, and computer and wifi access.

According to the Library Research Service, nearly 97% of all public libraries provide free internet access, both at terminals and to mobile devices. In 2014, more than 200 thousand computers terminals in public libraries served over 340 million internet sessions to patrons.

Beyond connectivity, many libraries are finding that library users are seeking experiential learning. Public libraries nationwide are moving more toward offering a range of experiences with books and materials, from visiting a library and checking materials out, to creating their own books, music, and video using library spaces and resources.  

We call this a shift from content consumption to content creation

Trent Miller, manager of the Wisconsin Public Library’s Bubbler Media Lab

What training programs are library patrons gravitating toward?

Bubbler’s lab programs are proving to be catalysts for change. Experts are invited to share their talents and professional expertise with community members, offering a higher-level experience than librarians trying to teach the basics. Additionally, artists and media professionals can share real-life experiences, as well as their craft.  Both groups are attracting new audiences.

To keep up the momentum, Miller and his team are experimenting with ways the library can provide niches platforms for artists and creators. Some examples of that include:

  1. the Bubbler's Artist in Residence program, which allows visitors to discover local artists and learn more about how they work
  2. the Wisconsin Book Festival, which creates opportunities for people to meet local and national authors.
  3. the Yahara Music Library, which licenses local musicians' work, and offers it to the community via an online platform where users can stream or download music for free and discover local talent.

Miller says stop motion animation has been Bubbler’s longest-term success. 

“Using iPads, animation stations, and props, anyone from kindergarteners to seniors have created short films and learned the principles of animation,” he shares. “Those who are interested in learning more can take our game design and animation workshops, or use higher end animation software in during open lab sessions in the Media Lab. Animation is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, so it's a skill set that is needed.”

Audio engineering has also been popular in the Bubbler Media Lab. The space has equipment and software that most aspiring musicians can't afford on their own, and provides it free of charge.

How else is technology changing library atmospheres?

On the East Coast,  the James B. Hunt Library in North Carolina State University runs “Robot Alley” a robots-at-your-service facility, where bookBots barcode, organize and deliver books under five minutes after a library uses makes a request through an online catalog.

The NC library’s Game Lab offers a high-tech, interactive atmosphere with video game consoles, a 20.3 x5 Christie MicroTiles display that can be used for viewing or game development and research, and surround sound. All the lab’s laptops and mobile devices come with network enabled applications.

Equipped with two 3D printers and a laser cutter, the Hunt Library also gives hands-on classes in its Makerspace, and provides immersive learning experiences in its Teaching and Visualization Lab. Here, information can be visualized in HD, and simulations of changing city landscapes can be consumed

Ultimately, libraries are still a haven for people to connect. 

“There are very few spaces in most communities that are free for groups to meet in, and a public library can fill that need,” says Miller. “As we've remodeled or expanded our libraries in the last ten years, we've been asked over and over for more spaces—event spaces, study rooms, display spaces and quiet reading areas. We are building those spaces for people to use and to enjoy and make connections with each other.”

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About Melissa Jun Rowley

Melissa Jun Rowley is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and content strategist with a passion for all things tied to social innovation.