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Rethinking libraries

Picture_1_2Sudden and monumental change serves a purpose, or at least it should. In the aftermath of such change we shouldn’t unthinkingly rebuild things back the way they were. We should pause to consider what unique advantages have surfaced. We should consider if certain foundational assumptions need to be abandoned altogether in order to create a more lasting foundation.

Last Saturday I drove my son out to St. Bernard where he and 1,000 other college kids were spending their spring break rebuilding houses at the Habitat Camp Hope project. The drive was bleak. There were a few spots of commerce, improbable little strip malls amidst miles of forsaken houses. My eyes brightened when I saw a small white trailer with a sign that proclaimed the presence of a public library. And yet it was a simple little trailer. What kind of library could be housed in such a structure?

As I drove closer I saw a large sign outside of the library: “FREE WIRELESS INTERNET”. For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the strange implications of this simple little sign.

St. Bernard was completely inundated by floodwaters from Katrina. And the people of St. Bernard are not folks who spend a lot of money on technology. You won’t see any Starbucks out there, that’s for sure. Home Depot has a store the size of the Pentagon, and beyond that it’s just little mom and pop stuff. The most exotic business I saw was a Planet Beach tanning salon. I guess that’s why I was intrigued by the library Wi-Fi sign. It seems like if you live in St. Bernard and want to use some free wifi you have to go to the library (well Camp Hope, where my son stayed with the 1,000 college students, has free wifi too).

Today, the Times Picayune has an article about a new $650 million ‘Library Master Plan’ for the city. The story doesn’t say anything about wireless internet. Perhaps that is an oversight by the author. Then again maybe there is a larger oversight. Maybe wireless internet isn’t part of the new master plan at all. Of course, the libraries of the future aren’t all about wireless internet access.

So what should they be about?

Here’s how a progressive Northwest city envisioned this question:

“Seattle’s public library…was designed to be a downtown hangout, with something for everyone, as if you crossed Starbucks with a mega bookstore.” FN1

In other words, the idea was to use the library as a community gathering place. Wow! What a great idea. Needless to say, an idea like that isn’t borne by thinking of libraries in a traditional way. It was borne by asking fundamental questions:

Why do so many people hang out in large bookstores like Borders or Barnes & Noble? Why do people go to Starbucks to hangout? What kind of architecture is conducive to hanging out in public places?

The folks who are rebuilding New Orleans’ public libraries are about to spend a lot of money. I hope that they have asked these questions, and that their vision includes some novel thinking. If they haven’t then I suggest they start by reading Mutating Libraries by Jenny Levine, a forward-thinking librarian who references a Slate slideshow entitled: Borrowed Time: How do you build a public library in the age of Google? Ms. Levine takes some issue with a statement by Ross Dawson that libraries will extinct by 2019, but she agrees that ” libraries are about a lot more than just books or study carrels,” which is why she believes that “there’s room for things like gaming in today’s library.”

I wish that Jenny Levine had been in charge of our library project because then I wouldn’t have to wonder whether we were acting with the proper vision. Somehow I fear we are not.

FN1: Quote is from the 7th slide in the Borrowed Time slideshow.

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  • Bill says:

    While Irvin Mayfield is a talented guy with great(self) promotion skills, I’m not sure that he’s the person to be shepherding the NO Public Library system into the future. He’s talking about highlighting NO music and food, but libraries aren’t intended to be tourist attractions. We have quite a few venues for this at it is. What NO needs is access to sources of local and regional information(print and electronic), meeting places, and learning centers. It goes w/o saying that any public space should have wireless access.

  • matt del vecchio says:

    very interesting post.

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