“What happens to libraries when books are no longer enough?”
That’s the question Dallas Observer reporter Lauren Smart asked last week, as she pondered a library under siege by the digital revolution. She talks to librarians of the Dallas library system, and shares some of the ways they’re staying afloat:
What you see when you walk into a library varies at each of the system’s 29 branches. Each location reflects its neighborhood or the interests of whoever runs the branch’s Friends chapter. At the Lakewood Branch Library, a knitting group meets at 2 p.m. Tuesdays, and the library hosts an annual neighborhood art show. At Hampton-Illinois, you’ll find kids gathered around the storytelling tree, or families tinkering with plastic blocks during Lego Club. But what you’ll see at all of the branches any hour of the day is that nearly every computer is in use, and only the occasional book is being thumbed through. The role of the library is evolving, or at least it should be.
Generations that have grown up in the midst of technological change are less likely to prize the public library than their forbears: according to a 2014 Pew poll, “college-aged adults (ages 18-24), were less likely to use public libraries than many other age groups, less likely to see libraries as vital for themselves or their community, less likely to have visited a library recently, and are more likely to purchase most of the books they read than borrow them from a library,” writes Stephanie Cohen for Acculturated. How are libraries to compete with the internet? After all, “with Amazon you don’t have to deal with parking and interlibrary loans; librarians also need to sleep and libraries close overnight, while Amazon fulfillment warehouses do not,” Cohen notes.
Adrienne LaFrance noted this week in The Atlantic that many libraries already offer a lot of technological services—the size and importance of these areas may just continue to grow in the future:
Today’s libraries are already community spaces with rooms full of books and machines—many libraries have printers, copiers, computers, and microfiche terminals. But if the trend in American libraries is toward relative booklessness, when—and how quickly—do print volumes become searchable or downloadable only online? Perhaps the library of the future will consist of five coffee-shop-sized locations spread across a town, instead of one larger, centralized building. These physical spaces would become the main draw of a library; the books people want to check out would all be available to download from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Smart’s story indicates that the communal role of neighborhoods may grow, and even replace books as the primary service offered by libraries. And it’s true that providing a shared, communal space can be a great and important offering for many neighborhoods—it’s something that libraries have done well for generations.
But are there other ways that libraries can draw in younger generations—without sacrificing or abandoning their print collections?
Reading these pieces reminded me of a recent visit to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon. Though a bookstore, the five-story, full-city-block building functions much like a successful library might. The store is divided neatly into color-coded genre sections, with different offerings on each floor. There’s a special old and rare book section on the top floor, as well as a sitting area for visiting lecturers and authors. Helpful staff at info desks are scattered throughout, and there’s a bustling coffee shop on one of the floors. On the sides of shelves, around staircases, in front rooms, and near the cafe, the bookstore offers several featured shelves—showing you what’s on the bestseller’s list, what’s popular, staff picks, regional picks, award winners, etc. (Barnes & Noble is similar, but doesn’t have quite the amount of helpful tips and featured shelves that Powell’s does.)
Aesthetically, the bookstore is simple—but appealing. The coffee shop is cozy, the shelves are kept neat, all the rooms are well-lit, and the children’s area has colorful rugs and chairs. The bookstore is in the heart of Portland—extremely accessible to walkers, bikers, and public-transportation users. Considering its location, it is bustling—but there’s still spaces of calm and quiet tucked within it. It’s got the perfect combination of stillness and white noise.
All of these are reasons why I’ve always been more likely to visit the Powells and Barnes and Nobles of the worlds, instead of the libraries. I’ve always wanted to love libraries and frequent them. But when you study, read, and write best with white noise and a good cup of coffee (thank you, college), it can be difficult to feel at home in the library’s hushed, hallowed halls.
This is why LaFrance’s idea for “five coffee-shop-sized locations spread across a town, instead of one larger, centralized building” is fascinating to me. Especially if—perhaps possibly?—one or two branches could actually have an attached coffee shop or similar cafe-like sitting area. As in Dallas, the multiple small locations could offer an interesting opportunity to have different offerings / focuses at different locations.
One branch could have more of a community vibe—with a coffee shop, more meeting rooms, etc. Another location could have an art focus, perhaps, and have a couple rotating exhibits—with art shows and musical performances on the weekends. Another might be especially family-friendly, with regular readings, activity rooms for children, and a more extensive children’s / YA collection. Another might be more traditionally scholarly and quiet, offering a getaway for students and scholars. This method could offer the opportunity to particularize without losing, but rather emphasizing, the library’s book collection. It could give the library an opportunity to showcase different facets of its collection, while also expanding its communal offerings. If there’s anything that keeps me from a library, it’s the hush and feeling of sterility—a place too little frequented, a little too hushed. Having more busy, bustling locations could help combat this feeling.
I want to love, and frequent, the library. To help keep it in circulation, so to speak. And I think many other young people do, too: as LaFrance puts it, “Americans love the idea that they love libraries”—even if they don’t actually act on that feeling.
But by combatting feelings of deadness and by expanding its communal offerings, the library may continue to grow and flourish in the 21st century—even while keeping its books. Let’s hope so.