Advice for 21st Century Libraries

Recently, a trustee from another library in Massachusetts contacted me to ask for some thoughts on the future of libraries, and how best to design for that future. She said her library was “at a crossroads,” but may soon have the opportunity to renovate their current building or build in a new location. She was taking the wise step of seeking information and opinions from a variety of perspectives before launching any action. Here, then, is some of my advice for libraries looking to the future:

  • If you’re lucky enough to get a building grant (or another source of funding to make changes to a current building or build a new one):
    • Consider the way that patrons are using your library now, but also consider other ways people might use the space. Make it as flexible as possible, with modular furniture and movable stacks.
    • Get as much natural light as you can. This includes basement levels (children’s and teen departments are often downstairs, as are meeting rooms, and staff work space).
    • When choosing an architect, make sure they have designed libraries before. Talk to staff – not just directors, but all staff, from circ to reference to children’s – to see what they like and dislike, what works and what could be improved. Staff on the “front lines” have a lot of valuable knowledge that an architect should consider: the importance of sight lines between desks, the location of bathrooms, the varying temperature zones in different areas of the library.
  • Have places for people to meet: large meeting and program rooms, smaller study rooms, open areas with tables for group work. Study rooms are in demand at most public libraries, and larger rooms can be used (for free or for a fee, depending on library policy) by community groups, which may lead to partnerships between those groups and the library.
  • Make the space welcoming. Natural light, comfortable furniture, perhaps some bright colors or a particular visual element – like a mural in the children’s area – encourage people to come in and stay for a while.
    • And if you give a mouse a place to stay for a while…he’s probably going to ask for milk and cookies. Do you have (or can you add) a coffee shop or cafe? At the very least, consider scrapping policies against food and drink in the library, at least in some areas.
  • Who uses the library? Are you missing certain demographics (age, income, race)? How do you encourage those people to use the library?
  • Where are the teenagers? Talk to teen librarians. In my experience, they are some of the most enthusiastic and creative librarians in the profession, bubbling over with outside-the-box ideas, and they have incredible problem-solving skills. How can you support them to make the teen space inviting, either in terms of furniture, materials, technology, or programming? Teen space in the library should be distinct from children’s space and adult space.
    • Is there a good library in the middle school and high school? Support your teen librarian’s efforts to connect to teachers and school librarians. Consider offering programs that are more fun than educational – games, arts and crafts, movies.

The two most important things I hope that library directors and boards will take into account when planning for the future are the following:

Get buy-in from library staff, library users, and people in the community who don’t use the library. (Why don’t they come in? What could you offer that would attract them?) Not everyone will be excited about change, but if you can get a few “early adopters” on board, they will bring others with them. Bottom-up change is usually more successful than top-down change, so get input from every level.

Design for flexibility. We can’t see the future, but we can safely assume it will be different from the present. Make your space as flexible as possible so that you can make changes to meet unforeseen needs and wants: renovations and new furniture are expensive, so make them count. And remember to prioritize accessibility, not simply to fulfill ADA compliance, but because the library should be welcoming and easy to use for everyone.

Do you work in a library? Are you a library user? What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when planning for the future of a library?

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