At an elementary school in Riverside, Connecticut, the campus library has been rechristened. The new “learning commons” is home to a makerspace equipped with a 3-D printer and an active staff of digital media specialists. Students can still check out any of the thousands of books on the shelves or work quietly on their homework, but the new moniker and resources reflect a widespread shift in libraries throughout the country.
For centuries, libraries functioned as unique archives of written information and stories. Now, that information is available on many portable devices, but libraries are not obsolete. Far from it.
“In many communities around the world public libraries are still the only place where any person, regardless of education or skill level, can have access to information,” wrote IDEO in a recent report. Libraries are actually uniquely situated to support new types of learning and curious communities.
Recognizing the changing role of libraries, the Knight Foundation focused its 12th annual Knight News Challenge on the topic. The contest posed the question: “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Twenty-two winners, who split $3 million in prize money, were announced in January.
The Metropolitan New York Library Council will use its winnings to assemble a mobile team of digital archivists, who will help residents in Brooklyn and Queens tell . At the Chicago Public Library, the Knight funding will go toward in-person study groups for students who want to supplement their online courses with live discussion. The Library Freedom Project, a series of traveling workshops, will teach librarians digital security methods and privacy law.
Most of the Knight projects share a premise: Libraries have always been excellent repositories of information. With some restructuring and support, they can continue to serve this function in the digital age. Another winning initiative, Boston’s Open Data to Open Knowledge, will corral the city’s public data—“digital artifacts of our life in a digital environment”—and release it in an accessible and organized manner.
As libraries carve out these new identities, many librarians are taking a thoughtful look at their physical spaces. “When every student has the potential to carry a global library on the device in his or her pocket, the role of physical libraries may become even more important, not just a place to house resources, but one in which to create meaning from them,” wrote Beth Holland in Edutopia. For young learners, it can be particularly important for a physical space to be inviting. At Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, the library was redesigned without any walls or other physical barriers, so the site is ripe for spontaneous collaboration and colearning.
In the report “Design Thinking for Libraries,” IDEO encouraged librarians to apply the principles of design thinking to their buildings and programs. The creative approach to problem solving asks empathetic, intuitive designers to focus on human needs. The process can be simple. When a second-grade teacher in New York noticed his students were disengaged, he asked them how the classroom could better meet their needs. It turned out the bulletin boards he used in most lessons were too high for the kids to see, IDEO reported.
Libraries can redesign their spaces and programs to better serve the needs of their patrons, too, whether that means simply lowering the shelves or adding a brand new children’s play area as the Chicago Public Library branch did, IDEO reported. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has long served as a venue for informal and digital learning. At The Labs, teenagers engage in hands-on creative tech projects, building robots and shooting videos.
These experts remind us that the piles of dusty books and literate librarians cherished by patrons of yesteryear are still around. Building on—not discarding—our print past, libraries have the opportunity to take on many new and necessary roles, be it a community center, data hub, or makerspace.