The Public Library, Completely Reimagined

| November 9, 2011 | 54 Comments
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You’ll hear a lot of talk about the “death of the public library” these days. It isn’t simply the perpetual budget crises that many face either. It’s the move to digital literature, and the idea that once there are no more print books (or rather if there are no more print books), the library as an institution will cease to exist.

Librarians will remind you, of course, that a library is much more than a book repository. It’s an information center (free and open information, I should add). It’s an educational center. It’s a digital access center. It’s a community center. It’s fairly clear when you describe the library like this that none of these roles are going away (nor should they), no matter what format our reading habits may move to.

But these new formats will indeed change libraries — how they operate as well as how they look. As our books become digitized, there may be less need for row upon of bookshelves. And as such, that’s a great opportunity for libraries to re-think how to use that space.

Earlier this year, MAKE Magazine’s Phillip Torrone wrote a provocative article asking “Is it time to rebuild and retool libraries and make ‘techshops’?” In other words, should libraries join some of the other new community centers that are being created (such as General Assembly which we covered yesterday) and become “hackerspaces” or “makerspaces”?

“Yes!”, says librarian Lauren Smedley, who is in the process of creating what might just be the first maker-space within a U.S. public library. The Fayetteville Free Library where Smedley works is building a Fab Lab — short for fabrication laboratory — that will provide free public access to machines and software for manufacturing and making things.

So far, the Fab Lab is equipped with a MakerBot, a 3D printer that lets you “print” plastic pieces of your own design. The potential for 3D printers to revolutionize manufacturing as we know it is huge: imagine being able to design and then manufacture — or “print” — whatever you want. Moreoever, imagine the tools of manufacturing being in the hands of everyone, not just giant factories (and remember, since this is a public library, this is really putting the technology in the hands of everyone, not just those that can afford a membership at a traditional hackerspace).

Smedley says she plans on adding other equipment as well, including a CNC Router and a laser cutter. Smedley helped her library win a $10,000 innovation grant at the recent Contact Summit in New York and is also raising money via an Indiegogo campaign. She’s reaching out to local science teachers, as well as encouraging those already active in area hackerspaces and makerspaces to get involved. Her plans also include offering free classes and programs for the community, including Introduction to 3D Printing, 3D design software training, computer programming, and Geek Girl Camps.

The Fayetteville Free Library is actually housed in part in an old furniture factory, so the site already has a “history of making,” says Smedley. But as a new-to-the-profession librarian herself, Smedley has been thinking a lot about “innovation in public libraries”: what belongs in a 21st century library? What should a 21st century library look like? What resources should it offer?

Smedley says she wants to prove that libraries aren’t just about books. They are about free access to information and to technology — and not just to reading books or using computers, but actually building and making things.

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  • elisabeth abarbanel

    Love this. School Libraries should provide the same type of labs.

  • elisabeth abarbanel

    Love this. School Libraries should provide the same type of labs.

    • Adam Cahan

      They’re called machine shops

    • Adam Cahan

      They’re called machine shops

    • Opal Trelore

      Who would pay for that?

      • Anonymous

        I’m in favor of everyone paying for it. In other words, the taxpayers. However, private fundraising is very popular for such projects if there is taxpayer supported space in which to do it. Either way I’m for it. That’s so much better for kids than gangs and smoking meth. Take your pick. You’ll pay for it one way or the other. “Choose your pain or it will be chosen for you.”

      • Anonymous

        I’m in favor of everyone paying for it. In other words, the taxpayers. However, private fundraising is very popular for such projects if there is taxpayer supported space in which to do it. Either way I’m for it. That’s so much better for kids than gangs and smoking meth. Take your pick. You’ll pay for it one way or the other. “Choose your pain or it will be chosen for you.”

        • damartin

          Um, we are all paying for our libraries now…

        • damartin

          Um, we are all paying for our libraries now…

    • Opal Trelore

      Who would pay for that?

  • Andersonmeredith648

    Hi, my name is Meredith Anderson and I’m a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I always wondered what would happen to the libraries once books turned digital. I would definitely like to see libraries move to a new digital style. Since schools are moving forward with technology, it only makes sense to move the libraries along with it. And the best part is that it’s free to the public! Just think of all the new discoveries! Thanks for the post!

    • Eva

      There are so many complications implicit in the digital format, particularly focusing on ownership of the material and the legality of, as you call it, free distribution.  E-book distributors can easily abruptly revoke the rights to certain books (and have done so in the past), instantly removing those works from libraries’ digital “shelves;” this is something they could never do with a physical book.  There’s also the issue of e-book readers: do libraries have to buy enough to distribute to all their patrons?  Are patrons expected to universally own e-book readers?  Isn’t that cutting off a significant segment of the population, on an economic basis if nothing else?

      Digital copies of anything also come with significant issues of preservation.  File format obsolescence is a huge problem, and it isn’t currently being addressed in a coherent way on anything approaching the national level.  A book is accessible as long as it physically exists, which can be hundreds or, in the right conditions, thousands of years.  A digital object is accessible only as long as the technology it needs to be accessed is around–which changes rapidly.  What happens if we begin creating written works solely in digital formats, and our lack of a digital preservation/migration infrastructure results in an entire period of written history that can no longer be accessed?

      Also, frankly, I love physical books.  I will go down with my physical books fighting, clawing, and biting.  Beyond the need I have to be able to flip back and forth in my books, find reference points, and access them regardless of available technology or battery power, books are beautiful, experiential objects with sensory experiences beyond the purely visual.  As someone who works in an academic library, I also know that serendipitous finds on the shelves are absolutely crucial to the research processes of many of our patrons.  Catalogs aren’t perfect, nor are the people who use them.  Very often, a patron does a search on a subject, goes to the stacks to find their book, and finds several even better sources sitting right next to it.  If you remove the physical component entirely, there is no possibility for that kind of discovery.

      That said, I think some portion of digital content is a great thing in libraries, though it’s more pertinent to some areas than others.  I also think a makerspace is a brilliant idea, but I think it is PART of a library, not a library in and of itself.

    • Eva

      There are so many complications implicit in the digital format, particularly focusing on ownership of the material and the legality of, as you call it, free distribution.  E-book distributors can easily abruptly revoke the rights to certain books (and have done so in the past), instantly removing those works from libraries’ digital “shelves;” this is something they could never do with a physical book.  There’s also the issue of e-book readers: do libraries have to buy enough to distribute to all their patrons?  Are patrons expected to universally own e-book readers?  Isn’t that cutting off a significant segment of the population, on an economic basis if nothing else?

      Digital copies of anything also come with significant issues of preservation.  File format obsolescence is a huge problem, and it isn’t currently being addressed in a coherent way on anything approaching the national level.  A book is accessible as long as it physically exists, which can be hundreds or, in the right conditions, thousands of years.  A digital object is accessible only as long as the technology it needs to be accessed is around–which changes rapidly.  What happens if we begin creating written works solely in digital formats, and our lack of a digital preservation/migration infrastructure results in an entire period of written history that can no longer be accessed?

      Also, frankly, I love physical books.  I will go down with my physical books fighting, clawing, and biting.  Beyond the need I have to be able to flip back and forth in my books, find reference points, and access them regardless of available technology or battery power, books are beautiful, experiential objects with sensory experiences beyond the purely visual.  As someone who works in an academic library, I also know that serendipitous finds on the shelves are absolutely crucial to the research processes of many of our patrons.  Catalogs aren’t perfect, nor are the people who use them.  Very often, a patron does a search on a subject, goes to the stacks to find their book, and finds several even better sources sitting right next to it.  If you remove the physical component entirely, there is no possibility for that kind of discovery.

      That said, I think some portion of digital content is a great thing in libraries, though it’s more pertinent to some areas than others.  I also think a makerspace is a brilliant idea, but I think it is PART of a library, not a library in and of itself.

  • Andersonmeredith648

    Hi, my name is Meredith Anderson and I’m a student in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I always wondered what would happen to the libraries once books turned digital. I would definitely like to see libraries move to a new digital style. Since schools are moving forward with technology, it only makes sense to move the libraries along with it. And the best part is that it’s free to the public! Just think of all the new discoveries! Thanks for the post!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706691123 Arno Brosi

    Great idea to use libraries as fablabs too.But there will always be print books because (now at least)most new books are printed as well as being digitized.And many books simply look much better printed than on a computer screen……

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=706691123 Arno Brosi

    Great idea to use libraries as fablabs too.But there will always be print books because (now at least)most new books are printed as well as being digitized.And many books simply look much better printed than on a computer screen……

  • Wtnesbitt

    Why would you need an MLIS for this?

  • Wtnesbitt

    Why would you need an MLIS for this?

    • Jeremy

      Why do you need a degree for business? Why an MBA? Why a Ph.D?

      MLIS is much more than clerk training.

    • Jeremy

      Why do you need a degree for business? Why an MBA? Why a Ph.D?

      MLIS is much more than clerk training.

      • Wtnesbitt

        I am well aware of courses taken for an MLIS and an MLS. Unless there has been a major shift in the programs, laser technology, robotics, scripting languages, Objective C/C/C++, AutoCAD, industrial design and other technical classes are not taught. These library programs will require paid staff with advanced technology training to be brought in to instruct and oversee the users.

        • Sconsidine

          OR the library pursues and establishes partnership with a larger community of experts  and educators who work with librarians to develop and deliver programming that includes community use of advanced equipment and technology

      • Wtnesbitt

        I am well aware of courses taken for an MLIS and an MLS. Unless there has been a major shift in the programs, laser technology, robotics, scripting languages, Objective C/C/C++, AutoCAD, industrial design and other technical classes are not taught. These library programs will require paid staff with advanced technology training to be brought in to instruct and oversee the users.

  • Anonymous

    Great article!  Libraries should not just be about providing “free access to information and to technology.”  They are in an ideal position to help promote and enable digital literacy – teaching people how to more effectively and efficiently use online digital resources.

  • Anonymous

    Great article!  Libraries should not just be about providing “free access to information and to technology.”  They are in an ideal position to help promote and enable digital literacy – teaching people how to more effectively and efficiently use online digital resources.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds great and rather promising.

    Allow me, if I may as a male, to note that the only program here mentioned aimed at supporting children is “GIRLS CAMP”. Its clear, from educational stats and general societal attitude, that special educational/support programs are now aimed mostly at women/girls and that men/boys are left to fend for themselves and not even entitled to “sensitivity”, which has been pegged as a female aspect when it is instead a human aspect. 

    Has anyone thought of the basic lack of fairness to existing male individuals and the long-term consequences of such pervasive attitude?  

  • Anonymous

    Sounds great and rather promising.

    Allow me, if I may as a male, to note that the only program here mentioned aimed at supporting children is “GIRLS CAMP”. Its clear, from educational stats and general societal attitude, that special educational/support programs are now aimed mostly at women/girls and that men/boys are left to fend for themselves and not even entitled to “sensitivity”, which has been pegged as a female aspect when it is instead a human aspect. 

    Has anyone thought of the basic lack of fairness to existing male individuals and the long-term consequences of such pervasive attitude?  

    • Tracysakon

      Seriously? The number of men in STEM related fields far surpasses that of women. That is why young girls need to be encouraged to participate in programs that promote science and math–to help close the gap.

    • Tracysakon

      Seriously? The number of men in STEM related fields far surpasses that of women. That is why young girls need to be encouraged to participate in programs that promote science and math–to help close the gap.

      • Anonymous

        Seriously. There are more women than men in college, and men were the ones who lost 2M jobs, mostly not women. I understand the girls need(ed) help… in areas like science, sports, etc. “to close the gap” as you observe. But your goals appear to forget the consequences. That attitude is creating other gaps.

        What people are not thinking about is the effect of the much greater attention to girls than boys and the message implicit. Specially when there are serious budget constraints in education and boys are left with the message they are not worth as much, or actually any, support vs girls.
        What if such gap in math and science is actually natural in light of the girls population interests and tendencies? Is saying such presently a tabu in our society? Most studies indicate this.

        I’m all for the emancipation and equal empowerment of women, but I said equal and not so overwhelmingly twisted in favor of girls that boys are victimized by your budget preferences. Remember the boys born now are not responsible for past imbalances, and you are, in sequential generations, telling women they are worth more than boys. When the effort should be towards both genders to evolve. Not for one to evolve through the other’s detriment.

        Affirmative action, and equivalent program/budget preferences, have been
        legally dispensed with between races. I think the time is here to eliminate
        it between genders, specially in education. Or at least identify the damage
        you are doing to the “other” — the boys.

        • Eva

          Actually, college admissions teams are currently giving preference to male applicants: http://jezebel.com/5847340/women-are-the-real-victims-of-the-so+called-mens-crisis

          Which is largely as a result of the perceived male crisis you are describing above.

          • Anonymous

            If so, you “actually” did not contradict what I said — you advanced my argument by substantiating the clear need to support both genders equally. The only matter of perception here is your own and of those who advance girls as entitled to more support than boys.

            The only crisis is some women thinking they are somehow superior or that by being selfish they will advance justice and equality in society.

            The facts speak for themselves. Women, just as men, must make the best of their differences, and accept equality; not unfair advantages at the expense of the perceived other.

            ps: its not a male crisis, its a change in paradigm for Humans or at least the citizens of this democracy.

          • Anonymous

            If so, you “actually” did not contradict what I said — you advanced my argument by substantiating the clear need to support both genders equally. The only matter of perception here is your own and of those who advance girls as entitled to more support than boys.

            The only crisis is some women thinking they are somehow superior or that by being selfish they will advance justice and equality in society.

            The facts speak for themselves. Women, just as men, must make the best of their differences, and accept equality; not unfair advantages at the expense of the perceived other.

            ps: its not a male crisis, its a change in paradigm for Humans or at least the citizens of this democracy.

          • Eva

            Given that your original comment indicated that you believed the only current prejudice was against the educational advancement of men, I believe I did, but regardless:

            1) The still-extant wage disparity between men and women makes it a little hard for me to see the US as a place that is unfriendly to men and boys and their professional advancement.
            2) I am not arguing that men or boys should be discriminated against.  I’m not even sure that the article actually means there is only a girls’ program.  But given the dramatic gap between male and female achievement in the maths and sciences, it makes sense for there to be a girls’ program in these areas, just as it would make sense to have a boys’ program in creative writing or some other “traditionally” female field.

            3) Don’t you think that accusing women of being selfish and believing that they are superior is generalizing a bit?  Particularly using that broad brush to paint all those who work for women’s equality?

          • Eva

            Given that your original comment indicated that you believed the only current prejudice was against the educational advancement of men, I believe I did, but regardless:

            1) The still-extant wage disparity between men and women makes it a little hard for me to see the US as a place that is unfriendly to men and boys and their professional advancement.
            2) I am not arguing that men or boys should be discriminated against.  I’m not even sure that the article actually means there is only a girls’ program.  But given the dramatic gap between male and female achievement in the maths and sciences, it makes sense for there to be a girls’ program in these areas, just as it would make sense to have a boys’ program in creative writing or some other “traditionally” female field.

            3) Don’t you think that accusing women of being selfish and believing that they are superior is generalizing a bit?  Particularly using that broad brush to paint all those who work for women’s equality?

          • Anonymous

            I can agree with you on 1) and 2) and have no idea where you extract such negativity from my comment.

            I just remarked how there is a Girls’ Tech Camp, and, as now usual, no Boys’ Whatever; or that even such is listed without notice to boys.

            I also remarked that professing less than equality in resource spending across genders is not fair. All else is a poem to fairness and evolution.
            As to your item 3) : If you read my text The only crisis is some women thinking they are somehow superior or that by being selfish they will advance justice and equality in society.
            You’ll notice my use of the word “some”, not all.

            As to an hypothetical “all” women, I’d probably love most. I just think we need more balance. Maybe as you mention in item 2). I think I’d prefer a more unisex education, at least without gender-labeling.

            Just organize classes differently, don’t exclude a gender by labeling a class/camp with exclusionary attitudes. If its tech it should be for all within certain age.

            Or are we following the fear that makes us run? We must look ahead, specially when running away.

          • Anonymous

            I can agree with you on 1) and 2) and have no idea where you extract such negativity from my comment.

            I just remarked how there is a Girls’ Tech Camp, and, as now usual, no Boys’ Whatever; or that even such is listed without notice to boys.

            I also remarked that professing less than equality in resource spending across genders is not fair. All else is a poem to fairness and evolution.
            As to your item 3) : If you read my text The only crisis is some women thinking they are somehow superior or that by being selfish they will advance justice and equality in society.
            You’ll notice my use of the word “some”, not all.

            As to an hypothetical “all” women, I’d probably love most. I just think we need more balance. Maybe as you mention in item 2). I think I’d prefer a more unisex education, at least without gender-labeling.

            Just organize classes differently, don’t exclude a gender by labeling a class/camp with exclusionary attitudes. If its tech it should be for all within certain age.

            Or are we following the fear that makes us run? We must look ahead, specially when running away.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SX2NUZYNRJ5ZKCFRMEELNIOXL4 Pickin Grinnin

            >The still-extant wage disparity

            Show me a wage comparison study that takes into account:

            1) years worked at the job without extended absences

            2) job title

            3) actual job duties

            4) amount of REAL hours (on or off the clock) dedicated to the job each week

            5) willingness to ask for pay increases or promotions

            6) willingness to relocate, change working hours, or otherwise change one’s life to match the needs of the job

            If you don’t take everything into account, you can’t claim wage disparity.

        • Eva

          Actually, college admissions teams are currently giving preference to male applicants: http://jezebel.com/5847340/women-are-the-real-victims-of-the-so+called-mens-crisis

          Which is largely as a result of the perceived male crisis you are describing above.

      • Anonymous

        Seriously. There are more women than men in college, and men were the ones who lost 2M jobs, mostly not women. I understand the girls need(ed) help… in areas like science, sports, etc. “to close the gap” as you observe. But your goals appear to forget the consequences. That attitude is creating other gaps.

        What people are not thinking about is the effect of the much greater attention to girls than boys and the message implicit. Specially when there are serious budget constraints in education and boys are left with the message they are not worth as much, or actually any, support vs girls.
        What if such gap in math and science is actually natural in light of the girls population interests and tendencies? Is saying such presently a tabu in our society? Most studies indicate this.

        I’m all for the emancipation and equal empowerment of women, but I said equal and not so overwhelmingly twisted in favor of girls that boys are victimized by your budget preferences. Remember the boys born now are not responsible for past imbalances, and you are, in sequential generations, telling women they are worth more than boys. When the effort should be towards both genders to evolve. Not for one to evolve through the other’s detriment.

        Affirmative action, and equivalent program/budget preferences, have been
        legally dispensed with between races. I think the time is here to eliminate
        it between genders, specially in education. Or at least identify the damage
        you are doing to the “other” — the boys.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SX2NUZYNRJ5ZKCFRMEELNIOXL4 Pickin Grinnin

      I would like to see a “BOYS CAMP” offered, as well, no matter what it focuses on.  When there are “girl only” programs, but no “boy only” ones, it sends the wrong message to the kids.

  • http://www.facebook.com/maltman23 Mitch Altman

    Imagine if libraries all became hackerspaces!  Complete with whatever each community thought was relevent — for all ages, all genders, all skill levels — with librarians and other people who love sharing what they know to help others learn what they want.  
     
    There could be print books, digitial books, computer access, sewing machines, soldering irons, drills, saws, cooking, photography, music, video, DIY bio, science, space exploration — whatever people in the community want. 
     
    It doesn’t cost much — the hundreds of existing hackerspaces all around the globe are proving this, and proving that it is not only an incredibly cool idea, but that it works!
    http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/List_of_Hacker_Spaces
     
    But the world needs more than hundreds of these spaces.  Libraries already exist, and they are looking for ways to continue to be relevent in the indefinite future for a majority of people in their community.  Creating hackerspaces in each is one great way to do this.
     
    I was on KQED Radio’s Forum on Friday morning talking about hackerspaces with Rachel Myrow:
    http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201111111000
     
    Mitch.
     

  • http://www.facebook.com/maltman23 Mitch Altman

    Imagine if libraries all became hackerspaces!  Complete with whatever each community thought was relevent — for all ages, all genders, all skill levels — with librarians and other people who love sharing what they know to help others learn what they want.  
     
    There could be print books, digitial books, computer access, sewing machines, soldering irons, drills, saws, cooking, photography, music, video, DIY bio, science, space exploration — whatever people in the community want. 
     
    It doesn’t cost much — the hundreds of existing hackerspaces all around the globe are proving this, and proving that it is not only an incredibly cool idea, but that it works!
    http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/List_of_Hacker_Spaces
     
    But the world needs more than hundreds of these spaces.  Libraries already exist, and they are looking for ways to continue to be relevent in the indefinite future for a majority of people in their community.  Creating hackerspaces in each is one great way to do this.
     
    I was on KQED Radio’s Forum on Friday morning talking about hackerspaces with Rachel Myrow:
    http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201111111000
     
    Mitch.
     

  • Barbara Dottilaro

    As a retired school librarian and an trustee of a public library, I tell people that libraries have always adapted to anything new happening in technology and cullture.  A few years ago a symposium given by the NJ State Library spoke a libraries becoming the “Good Great Place” where people come to do more than check out books, but to socialize.  I have always thought of libraries as Great Good Places.
    Barbara Sottilaro

  • Barbara Dottilaro

    As a retired school librarian and an trustee of a public library, I tell people that libraries have always adapted to anything new happening in technology and cullture.  A few years ago a symposium given by the NJ State Library spoke a libraries becoming the “Good Great Place” where people come to do more than check out books, but to socialize.  I have always thought of libraries as Great Good Places.
    Barbara Sottilaro

  • Hannah Kleyn

    One thing I’ve wanted recently is real-life and/or online community around the books I check out. If I could click a preference checkbox at checkout like “Yes, I would like to join a group of other people who have previously checked this book out”. Would be great for sharing interests, discussion, networking, support, etc.

  • Hannah Kleyn

    One thing I’ve wanted recently is real-life and/or online community around the books I check out. If I could click a preference checkbox at checkout like “Yes, I would like to join a group of other people who have previously checked this book out”. Would be great for sharing interests, discussion, networking, support, etc.

  • Bobo the Hobo

    Do you have any idea how many “fayetteville”s there are in the US. If this is even in the US. Why did you go so far out of your way not to mention the actual location of this library?

  • Bobo the Hobo

    Do you have any idea how many “fayetteville”s there are in the US. If this is even in the US. Why did you go so far out of your way not to mention the actual location of this library?

    • Frank Depalma

      ditto. where the heck is this?

      • 511fall

        It’s the Fayetteville Free Library in Fayetteville, New York. Wonderful place!

      • 511fall

        It’s the Fayetteville Free Library in Fayetteville, New York. Wonderful place!

    • Frank Depalma

      ditto. where the heck is this?

  • Guest

    “…a MakerBot [is] a 3D printer that lets you ‘print’ plastic pieces of your own design.”  Oh, great…just what we need, more plastic junk for the landfill. Am I missing something here?  Sounds like a dumb idea made even dumber because it’s happening in what should be a sacred space.