When librarians at the Skokie Public Library near Chicago moved their reference collection online and got rid of the massive print volumes, they suddenly had a lot of newly freed-up space.
Carolyn Anthony, the library's director, also serves on the Skokie Chamber of Commerce. She saw that after the economic downturn, many workers who'd lost their corporate jobs were starting businesses out of their homes. In fact, the fastest-growing segment of the chamber was now start-ups with fewer than five employees — many of them with just a single person running the entire operation, often out of a spare bedroom or home office. Working from home is fine, she thought, but meeting clients in a coffee shop gets old fast.
So she persuaded the library board to finance a project that just five years ago would have been unheard of: a three-room, fully functioning, Wi-Fi-equipped office suite, capable of accommodating more than 50 people. Users who can't afford their own office space reserve it by the hour, swapping a business card for a magnetic keycard.
"This is not really such a stretch, when you think about it," says Anthony, since figuring out what people need most is in libraries' DNA.
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As Americans spend more time online, both for work and play, public libraries are struggling to find ways to remain relevant, and they're discovering that they must reinvent themselves in sometimes fundamental ways. In addition to changing how they provide books and other media, they're changing in other ways:
• In Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb, the local library now houses the community food pantry, which supplies food monthly for an increasing number of residents.
• Chicago's public library found that kids were struggling to find help with homework, so every afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m., it turns every library branch into a homework help desk.
• Cleveland's library offers classes in 3-D printing, which translates computer-generated designs into one-of-a-kind objects printed from various materials.
• San Francisco's city library and Department of Public Health created a "homeless and poverty outreach library team" to help find housing and other services for homeless patrons who set up camp among the stacks.
• The Los Angeles city library in 2012 became the first to offer an online high school diploma program for adults who had dropped out of school.
"Libraries are now thinking pretty interestingly about where they might fit in," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Rainie was part of a team in March that issued findings showing that 30% of Americans are "highly engaged" with public libraries. People often form deeper connections with their library, they found, during "key life moments" such as having a child, seeking a job or doing research as a student. About one in seven (14%) of the 6,224 people they surveyed have never used a public library.
Rainie likens the "churn and change" taking place in the library world to those happening in print journalism. Librarians are asking themselves how people get information and how libraries can curate it and get it to them in a smart way.
As with newspapers, a few "deeply innovative librarians" long ago saw the shift coming, he says. "They're excited about it." But there are also many who are slow to change their habits, he says. "There is a strain of librarians that say, 'This isn't what I signed up for.' "
They may be on the wrong side of history. This summer, the keynote speaker at the American Library Association's annual meeting in Las Vegas will be Jane McGonigal, a video-game designer and researcher whose best-selling 2011 book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, suggested that Americans could improve their lives if they played more, not fewer, video games.
After suffering a severe concussion in 2009, McGonigal created SuperBetter, a game that has helped more than 250,000 players overcome health conditions such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain and traumatic brain injury.
In 2011, while searching for a way to make exploring the physical space of a library more appealing, McGonigal created a massive, all-night scavenger hunt in the New York Public Library that invited players to record their thoughts and ideas. It resulted in an instantly published book that each participant took home.
Her invitation, she says, "really shows that libraries are much more engaged in games and technology than people give them credit for."
Libraries have come a long way in their thinking about how games and reading go together, progressing from early efforts that simply awarded points for borrowing books to more sophisticated undertakings such as collaborative, library-based "game jams" that invite participants to develop original games over a weekend.
Pew's Rainie cites the increased use of games as a way that libraries are expanding their mission and user base. "The definition of 'community' has been up for grabs for a while," he says, "and libraries have deeply been part of the conversation."
But for a few libraries, video-game jams and 3-D printing may be a stretch. Libraries may be service-oriented community organizations, he says, but they also fear straying too far from their core mission of making information available to users. "How far is too far?" he asks.
In Skokie, the office suite, which opened for business in November 2012, has attracted start-ups of all stripes, Anthony says — including a few that clearly misunderstood the ground rules, which discourage sales pitches to the public. She recently got a postcard in her home mailbox advertising an information session at the library space for a new housing development. She told the developers that sales pitches to library patrons weren't quite what the library had in mind.
On the other hand, a regional shoe manufacturer recently borrowed the space to meet with local shoe dealers, since it had no room for demos. The large library meeting room, she recalls, was filled with shoes.
"We said, 'Yeah, that was OK.' "