Turning Library Spaces Into Community Places

I had an epiphany about the public libraries project this morning. In a school library as it happens. It suddenly dawned on me that it’s not about the books.

What I mean by this is that I have been too focused on books and the question of how digital books will influence physical libraries in the future. In short, will physical books disappear and take physical libraries along with them? But libraries are not just collections of books. They are collections of people.

It is the physical interaction of people, information and ideas – in all forms – that create a library and the physical space is hugely important. Libraries are community hubs. They are places where people go to borrow things and find answers, but they are also public spaces where people go to do things. Libraries are not just defined by what’s inside them but who’s inside them and what’s going on or available there.

It’s a bit like newspapers. The newspaper industry has got hung up with the issue of the internet when the real issue is content. Newspapers have become obsessed with online competition. This is a battle they have already lost and they should therefore focus more on the type of information that suits paper rather than pixels.

This has direct relevance to libraries. Digital books are here whether you like it or not and virtual libraries won’t be far behind. But neither of these developments will kill physical books or physical libraries because the two experiences are quite different.

When people read something on a screen they are usually in a hurry. They are looking for something quite specific and speed and convenience are critical. With physical newspapers, magazines and books people generally have a totally different mindset.

Mobile or screen-based media suits news, fast facts and snack-sized bursts of distraction. Fibre-media suits longer analysis and commentary. One is about speed whereas the other is more about relaxation and reflection.

What I suspect this will mean is that information splits into two. News and ‘vocational information’ will live largely online, whereas ‘leisure reading’ will continue to exist on paper. There will clearly be a crossover as one bleeds into the other, but generally I think this is what will happen.

So what are the implications of this for public libraries?

First, the demand for fast information will increase. “I need to know this now!” This will mostly be delivered online. Libraries can compete with this — and so they should, up to a point, because not everyone has access to a laptop or an iPhone. However, to focus too much on this would, in my opinion, be a big mistake.

Libraries are slow thinking spaces and they should stay that way. The majority of library users are not in a rush. They do not have a “search and destroy” mindset (William Powers). They have a “settle down mindset.”

In the future, the majority of library users will enter a library to slow down and escape from the fast-paced digital world outside. Libraries should therefore stay focused on slow reading and other reflective leisure-based activities ranging from music and film to art and history. This might sound boring but it needn’t be. Depending on the building and the people inside it public libraries can be vibrant places featuring cafes, shops, gyms, crèches, theatres, galleries and various cultural activities and events.

But the most important thing of all has nothing to do with media or ‘content’. The most important thing a library does is to connect people. This could be two individuals or an entire community. It doesn’t matter. People, like ideas, are inherently social and both need physical spaces to come into contact with each other.

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17 Responses to Turning Library Spaces Into Community Places

  1. Rosario Garza says:

    Excellent! Public libraries have never really been about the items warehoused in them. If the collection is lousy, but the staff and users are energized and enthusiastic, you will have a vibrant library. It should always be about the people. That’s where the energy comes from.

  2. A great epiphany and one that vibrant libraries understand well. I’ve posted similar thoughts related to this shift in thinking. I think at the core libraries need to shift their thinking away from merely service delivery (which providing books, access to resources etc) and start to shift the thinking towards more engagement & conversation – which is what actually build community, not books.

    Here’s a few related thoughts that all boil down from shifting the focus from the delivery of things/services to encouraging the community to connect, share and even collaborate in creation of new knowledge.


    It’s true… it’s about people and the value that they add to the library, but we often don;t think this way. Instead we constantly focus on what we deliver to our communities, rather then on how we cultivate community.

    Related image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hblowers/3696111297/

  3. Chris Knowles says:

    Is it about people or content?

    Seems to me that libraries perform an amazingly important role of providing free access to “paid” content – the delivery mechanism (book, magazine, newspaper, website, rss) is largely irrelevant.

    If News Corp starts a trend of content-providers charging for content no matter how it’s delivered then libraries will become even more important in providing that access, particularly if there’s a technical requirement to access it.

    I hope that the libraries of the future are a vibrant mixture of the virtual and the physical. No doubt much new content will only exist in virtual form but shelves crammed full of books will always be an awesome sight.

    As for newspapers – I think that if they continue to define themselves by the delivery mechanism (paper) then they will not stop their demise. Sure, they need to carefully consider what type of content to deliver by paper but they need hybrid models that means that I am a subscriber to The Age service, not the newspaper and how I get my news is entirely up to me whether that’s paper or online or a combination. (Maybe I’m online during the week and then paper on a Saturday – and maybe I can even get a personalised copy based on my likes and dislikes).

    I don’t think you can also underestimate the impact of what Nick Davies described in “Flat Earth News” – the homogenisation of news has only made it that much harder for traditional media to differentiate itself.

  4. Ann Perrigo says:

    Great thinking here, and it’s certainly what I see going on at my library. Would it be possible to share your blog with my library staff? My Board??

    Thanks for the different way of looking at libraries.

  5. Richard says:

    You can use all this in whatever form you like to whomever you like! The whole project will be available online very soon (free public access to the entire process and findings).

  6. You are correct in emphasizing that Libraries are fundamentally about people and that they provide an essential communal space. I can only see the value of this communal space increasing overtime with the probable move towards high density urban living.

    However your distinction regarding the suitability of digital vs. print formats for delivering reading experiences suited to quick information digestion as opposed to leisure reading is questionable. The improvement in portable digital readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s latest eReader are rapidly bridging the gap between the reading experience offered by paper formats. I personally think that in the next few years the advantages of the print format will be eroded, particularly in the mindset of the younger generations. In Japan the ebook fiction market has already overtaken the print equivalent.

    A few years back as an experiment I loaded a variety of eBooks onto my base model PDA. I actually read War and Peace with no issue at all. I enjoyed the fact that I could walk to a café at lunch with dozens of books loaded onto my PDA. The appeal of carrying a small library in your pocket on a device which delivers a reading experience equivalent to a traditional print book will be very enticing to many. That device perhaps does not exist yet, but I suspect it is not that far away.

    I don’t think such a development is a problem for libraries as you say, libraries offer far more than just shelves of books, and as Chris states, ‘libraries provide access to paid content and in that respect format is largely irrelevant’. So the challenge comes back to how we utilise the space in a library as the preffered containers for information storage evolve overtime and that’s not necessarily a new challenge.

  7. This is really good. UK Framework for the Future – Libraries, Learning and Information in the Next Decade. Published Feb 2003 but hardly dated at all.


  8. Mark Ostryn says:

    That’s interesting reading.
    another source in case you haven’t already stumbled on it is a very detailed article on the Future of Libraries from the daVinci Institute in Colorado

  9. Richard says:

    Here’s some more good stuff…..

    Selected bibliography, references and links

    1. Books
    • Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, Vintage 1996
    • The book is dead (long live the book) by Sherman Young, University of New South Wales, 2007
    • The dumbest generation: how the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30) by Mark Bauerlein (especially chapter 2), Tarcher 2009
    • Faster: the acceleration of just about everything by James Gleick, Pantheon 1999
    • Future shock by Alvin Toffler, Bantam 1984
    • How to be free by Tom Hodgkinson, Hamish Hamilton 2006
    • Library: an unquiet history by Matthew Battles, W W Norton & Co 1004
    • The rise of the creative classes by Richard Florida, Basic Books 2003
    • A whole new mind by Daniel Pink, Riverhead Hardcover 2005

    •Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Atlantic Books 2008
    • Neuromancer by William Gibson, Ace 2004
    • Rainbow’s end by Vernor Vinge, Tor Science Fiction 2006

    Books and paper
    The book of the future http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2009/07/the_book_of_the_future.html [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Future of books, The economist http://globaltechforum.eiu.com/index.asp?layout=rich_story&channelid=5&categoryid=15&doc_id=10370 [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Future of the book
    http://www.futureofthebook.org/ [accessed 13 August 2009]

    Google and the future of books by Robert Darnton, New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 2, 12 February 2009

    Hamlet’s blackberry: why paper is eternal by William Powers
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/3562724/Hamlets-Blackberry-Why-Paper-Is-Eternal [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Introducing the book http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFAWR6hzZek [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Stay ahead of the shift: what publishers can do to flourish in a community-centric web world 28 May 2009 http://www.idealog.com/stay-ahead-of-the-shift-what-publishers-can-do-to-flourish-in-a-community-centric-web-world [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Non-paper based technology including web 2.0
    Future question of the day http://www.iftf.org/node/3006 [accessed 12 August 2009]

    How teenagers consume media : Morgan Stanley report
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/17319794/How-Teenagers-Consume-Media [accessed 12 August 2009]

    David Lee King blog http://www.davidleeking.com/ [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Michael Stephens Tame the web.http://tametheweb.com/ [accessed 12 August 2009]

    College student perceptions of libraries and information sources 2005 http://www.oclc.org/reports/perceptionscollege.htm [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Designing libraries : the gateway to better library design http://www.designinglibraries.org.uk/ [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Future shock by Tracy Caldwell Information World Review 1 June 2007 http://www.whatpc.co.uk/information-world-review/features/2157389/future-shock [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Libraries building communities, State Library of Victoria, 2005 and 2008
    http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/about/information/publications/policies_reports/plu_lbc.html [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Libraries 2040: the first seven libraries of the future, Scandinavian Public Library Quarterly, Volume 3 Number 4 2002, http://www.splq.info/issues/vol35_4/02.htm [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Libraries of the future http://www.jisc.ac.uk/librariesofthefuture [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Libraries in a post literate society by Doug Johnson [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Manley, W.. (2009, June). Why We’ll Survive. American Libraries, 40(6/7), 104. Retrieved August 11, 2009, from Academic Research Library. (Document ID: 1738949181).

    Perceptions of libraries and information resources, OCLC 2005 http://www.oclc.org/reports/2005perceptions.htm [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Relevancy of libraries in the future 22 May 2009 http://lisnews.org/relevancy_libraries_future [accessed 12 August 2009]

    A space for the future – library buildings in the 21st century http://pandora.lib.hel.fi/conf02/ [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Sharing privacy and trust in the networked world, OCLC 2007 http://www.oclc.org/reports/sharing/default.htm [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Transformation lab : prototyping the future of public libraries Aarhus Public library May 2007 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpFO_L_jA1c [accessed 12 August 2009]

    World without librarians, library, void, Nigerian Ambassador/Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, Prof. Michael Omolewa’s Keynote Address to the 47th National Conference/Annual General Meeting of the Nigerian Library Association
    http://allafrica.com/stories/200907290342.html [accessed 12 August 2009]

    100 best library blogs for librarians of the future
    http://www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com/blog/2009/100-best-blogs-for-librarians-of-the-future/ [accessed 12 August 2009]

    Australian library blogs
    http://librariesinteract.info/australian-library-blogs/ [accessed 12 August 2009]

  10. Barbara says:

    Absolutely!!! Public Libraries are THE PLACE TO BE.

  11. Martin says:

    Your take on the physical space of a library as a place for community engagement – slow down spaces – is very interesting. I agree that the majority of ‘fast information’ requests will be answered online but I’m not sure libraries will be competing with that for much longer. I also think that public libraries will be increasingly part of the leisure and learning landscape rather than the information landscape.

    I do think libraries have a role in the digital space though, in two ways. Firstly, I think that (especially public) libraries should be focusing on intensely local content and making that data openly available online. Often libraries are the only places that collect that really local data and there is great demand for that stuff.

    I also think that the digital space offers libraries the possibility of reaching out to the community in their online spaces, in turn inviting them to engage in the community building that goes on in the physical library. for example, you can run a book club in the Library where people physically meet but we can also extend an invitation to people to participate in that book club online. Publicise the latest book to be read online, blog the discussion taking place in during the meeting and invite people to add their comments.

    What you’re describing here about the physical library is exactly the sort of thing that is happening now on the Social Web. The people and the connections are the important things and they can happen in the physical and the online spaces.

  12. We are getting closer folks! We signed off a proof of the scenario book a few days ago so we should have something (hard copy, e-book, pdf etc) very soon….


  13. Richard Watson says:

    Good article here on saving public libraries in the UK from the Guardian newspaper back in 2006*

    * This is my new thing – running newspapers a few years after everyone else!

  14. I had lunch with Penny Walk from the Times a few weeks ago and she mentioned that her mum used to work in a local library. Apparently the library was in quite a rough area but the roughness issue was solved by supplying free tea and biscuits (very nice biscuits bought with her own money) to the local police. The police would pop in to the library all the time and there was never any trouble in or around the area. Pure genius.

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  17. Richard says:

    Great stuff! Thank you.


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