The Future of Libraries

Besides lending books, the local institutions are training young journalists, renting garden plots and more

telestory-brooklyn public library.jpg
Brooklyn Public Library

Libraries have been around for nearly 5,000 years, and sometimes it seems like they haven’t changed much since, at least in the public imagination. You know: hushed, slightly musty spaces smelling of old paper, presided over by the stereotypical ancient librarian.

But public libraries today are actually doing an enormous amount to meet 21st-century needs. A recent contest sponsored by the Knight Foundation awarded shares of a $1.6 million prize to 14 winners who came up with the best, most innovative ideas for helping libraries better serve their changing communities. Here’s a roundup of some of our favorite ideas from the contest, along with several other cool ways libraries are changing with the times.

Using the library to make Wikipedia better

Wikipedia is one of the most-visited sites on the internet, and an incredibly common source of facts for everything from blog posts to term papers. But as we all know, crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia are not always correct. This Knight Foundation prize-winning project, from the Online Computer Library Center, aims to both make library resources available for Wikipedia editors in order to create better, more accurate entries, and to train librarians to become Wikipedia editors themselves. Because better sources mean better entries mean better term papers.

Training students as community journalists

Another Knight Foundation prize winner, this project aims to launch a community journalism class for local high schoolers at the Dallas Public Library. The class, which operates in partnership with the Dallas Morning News, partners students with professional journalists and librarians as mentors, training them to use library resources in the service of journalism and nonfiction writing. The project’s founders hope the training will make students more engaged in their communities and help spread the (dying, according to many) art of quality journalism.

Helping kids talk to parents in prison

Some 2.7 million American children have an incarcerated parent. Many prisons are not accessible by public transportation, which means many of these children will rarely or never see that parent. Research has associated this situation with a number of ills, including grief, stigma and post-traumatic stress. The Brooklyn Public Library’s TeleStory project, another Knight Foundation winner, helps kids connect with their incarcerated parent via free video visits at the library. These visits, which can include a shared story time, both promote literary and encourage togetherness in families facing some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

Checking out gardens at the library

The Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, New York runs the LibraryFarm, a plot of land that can be rented out by individual library patrons to use as garden plots. The idea behind LibraryFarm is about promoting “food literacy,” meaning an understanding of where food comes from and how it’s grown. It’s also a free way for locals to improve their diets by growing their own veggies, thus bolstering public health. Lending things other than books is a major trend in public libraries today, with libraries across America lending everything from musical instruments to cookie cutters to sewing machines to fishing equipment.

Creating a kids-only space

Norway’s government-run after-school program only goes through 5th grade, leaving slightly older kids with working parents at loose ends. Enter Biblo Toyen, a library designed specifically for children ages 10 to 15. Looking more like a book-themed playground than a traditional library, Biblo Toyen features an old truck converted into a kitchen, a ski gondola-turned-hangout space and colorful, moveable bookshelves. Books are not arranged by title or genre, but by themes like “animals,” which could include both fiction and nonfiction, in order to promote creative discovery. There are also classes in cooking, drama, 3D printing, Lego building and more. Yet another reason the Scandinavians have it so good!

Lending books…by vending machine

(Wikimedia Commons)

Some people simply never make it to the library, whether because they’re too busy, it’s not a convenient location for them or they simply don’t feel comfortable in the space. Enter the Bokomaten, a Swedish library vending machine. Enter a title from a limited list, swipe your card and out pops a book. Bokomatens can be placed in high-traffic locations like metro stations for quick and easy use. The concept was later trialed in rural Yuba County, California, where a lack of funding and staff meant much of the population was underserved when it came to libraries. Though the experiment was considered a success, it has yet to spread to the rest of the country or the world.

A petting zoo, for electronics

Libraries across the country have begun offering “electronics petting zoos,” allowing patrons to try out technologies like tablets and e-readers before buying. These petting zoos can be especially appealing to seniors, who might be interested in technologies but unsure or uncomfortable about using them. Being introduced to the electronics by a library guide without any pressure to buy can help make the technology seem less intimidating.

Making 3D printing available to everyone

At the Cleveland Public Library, patrons can use the library’s 3D printer to print out their own designs, paying just a small fee for the plastic used. As 3D printing becomes more popular, yet machines remain inaccessibly expensive for the average American, services like this have become more common. The Cleveland library also offers workshops in 3D printing to introduce the technique to people with no previous experience.