Planning the library of the future….crystal ball not required

July 17, 2009

When I was a children’s librarian, sometimes around Halloween I dressed as a fortune teller (calling myself Esmerelda) and used a crystal ball to help me “reveal” fortunes to children.

What a fun event for me.  I think the kids enjoyed it too because the surprise on their faces indicated pure delight as the blank fortune-cookie-sized paper magically transformed with words of good fortune…right before their very eyes.  (I can’t tell you how I did it.  You never know when I’ll be asked to resurrect Esmerelda.)

Over the years, I’ve wished that one could actually use a crystal ball to help plan the future.  It would be much easier to just know exactly what new technologies we can expect over the next 20 years.  We’ve had a great deal of change in our world over the last two decades and the pace of innovation doesn’t seem to be slowing down.  Our library facility needs to expertly respond to changes both tomorrow…and for a good long while.  It’s important to take responsibility for proper planning.

I’ve come to realize that planning never really stops.  If you think about it, our planning for this expansion and renovation began as a part of our building project in 1983.  At that time, the architect designed unfinished spaces and called for utilization of them within 20 years.   Perhaps the architects had a crystal ball when they predicted that because they were remarkably accurate in estimating when we would run out of space.

But many things have changed since then.  Materials certainly are getting smaller.  Miniaturization, digitization, and electronic access are not only the trend, they are the future.

So why do we need to expand?

A well written blog post by Jamie LaRue entitled Imagine the post Kindle public library discusses the reasons very succinctly and accurately.  LaRue’s view is that libraries will always need space for children’s collections, technology, meeting rooms,  servers, displays, and librarians…key people in making sense of it all.

I’d also emphasize that libraries have always been about access to content.  The library is able to provide for the many what many would not be able to provide for themselves.   The format is almost beside the point.  It’s about equitable access to content.  Libraries don’t just bridge the digital divide.  They fill it.

Sometimes access involves physical space, sometimes it doesn’t.  But computers take space just as books do.   Tables take space.  Kindles take space.  And so do people.

Our library building and renovation project is built upon a foundation of self-examination.   We have studied carefully our service needs and our building.  We have done that in the context of our community.   I’m pretty sure I know how to use spreadsheet software better than my crystal ball at this point.

We have looked forward as well, factoring in the changes we anticipate and building in flexibility to accommodate the (as yet) unknown.  Our plan allows for growth in certain collection areas but not all of them.  We are not planning for growth,  for example, in the non-fiction or reference book collections.  We have looked at a whole range of needs including meeting room and seating space, better work-flow, easier way finding, greatly improved accessibility, incorporation of technology for both public and staff, and general (and very critical) infrastructure upgrades.   We plan to capture those unfinished spaces and make them functional.

The actual design is being refined and finalized throughout the summer.    I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the plan is progressing.    Based on a solid understanding of our environment, fundamental commitment to the delivery of excellent library services, and the knowledge that operational flexibility is key…we are planning for our future.   As we’ve been working, we’ve taken stock of what we have and all realize how lucky we are.  We’ve got an unbelievable foundation with historic architectural details that are worthy of  preserving and rediscovering.   It is going to be both a beautiful and functional building!

No one really knows where our world will be in even five years.  But I think it’s safe to say that this library will be right here, providing content to our community and fostering personal growth for our citizens in the best way we know how.

We don’t need a crystal ball to see that.

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