New York City is one of the world’s leading cities. It is recognized globally for it’s innovative designs and planning. Though New York is forever changing and is always in constant motion, it is no secret that it takes a while before any ideas are implemented. Concerns about New York City’s public libraries have been brought to the public’s attention and debates over solutions are currently in the works. Now this is not another article about the tragedy public libraries face with underfunding. Though it is a serious concern, it might help to focus on the issues facing patrons. If the problems affecting patrons are addressed, libraries will then have someone to fight for them other than librarians.
Libraries have kept up pretty well with the changes in technology. Library items and data are easily accessible through any device. All libraries at this point have online public access catalogs (OPAC) that allow patrons to access the items at their convenience . This immediate accessibility from home devices or mobile devices is the main reason visitor numbers are declining. But should these technological advances steer people away from libraries? Are libraries doing something wrong?
Maybe the terrible florescent lighting or the ugly 1980’s dorm furniture are the reason people just don’t want to stay and do their work in a library. People would rather sit packed side by side surrounded by the grinding of espresso machines and tangled charger cords under their feet at a coffee shop than sit quietly at library. Something is off putting about the atmosphere. If libraries are moving toward becoming community centers they need to consider re-inventing their space. In simple terms, they need to be as cool as coffee shops.
It is possible that the interior design of public libraries is so dull and bleak because librarians cannot find descriptive words to paint a portrait of who they are and what they would like to represent. To create a space that captures the libraries’ ideals, librarians need to identify them first. In Andre Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries: an Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship, Cossette argues that without a true grasp on their identity and a philosophy of their work, librarians will essentially never reach their true potential . Though his argument has entails a more complex discussion of the philosophy and identity of librarianship, its basic premise is this: if librarians find a philosophy and identity they agree on, they might have time to focus on other issues that face the field, like attracting more visitors.
North Carolina State University recently rebuilt their library. Their new design and approach is something to admire. Not only is the building modern and equipped with the newest and latest technology, it’s also a place where people want to be. The library attracts both students and faculty. What makes it so different? For one, it throws tradition out the window. The typical quiet atmosphere you think of when libraries are mentioned is not NCSU’s main selling point (not to say that in order to be hip and relevant tradition cannot be present). What NCSU accomplished was being able to increase their visitor rate by re-inventing a space that the users can enjoy. The designers of the space worked with the staff and librarians to create an environment that captures what they would like to represent to their users. A library should not be an intimidating institution and that’s what NCSU was able to achieve.
Here’s what they did right:
- Robot Alley/ Entrance (Watch book-bot Machinery and explore on the giant touch screen wall.)
- Makers’ Space (including 3D printers and larger printers for art projects)
- Gamers’ Lab (provides gaming equipment for users as well as a catalog of student made video games)
- Black Box Theater (Performances based space that provides projector and audio equipment)
- White Box Room (Art space with green screen, video production and whiteboard walls.)
- Seminar rooms and study rooms all equipped with white boards, projectors and flat panel displays)
- Rain Garden Reading Lounge (provides solo space for individuals, comfortable modern furniture and a relaxing environment)
- Skyline Reading Room/Terrance (open during nice weather and used for special events)
- Individual/Group computer work stations
- Auditorium for various events
Obviously, an average New York City public library cannot house all these different functions due to space and funding limitations but there is no reason public libraries cannot build off of this idea. Librarians can transform their space without demolishing the existing building and starting from scratch. They do not need an expensive flashy design to ensure attendance. Visitors (as well as librarians) just don’t want to feel alienated. People want to feel a part of a collective, they want to be “cool”, they want to be noticed and they want to participate. Even the lone individual goes to read in a library to participate in a social interaction. Here’s what NYC public libraries should consider:
- Group Space (for students who have group projects and need a place to meet.)
- Discussion Space (a place where conversation is encouraged/ community gathering)
- Snacking Space (an area designated for the workers who snack in between)
Discussing the motive and purpose behind the space should be encouraged among librarians. Once they agree on an idea, consulting with board members, donors, management and staff will help put the transformation into effect. But before any actions are taken, librarians need to forge a unified identity that will be the foundation for libraries as inviting spaces for social gathering and development.
 André Cossette, author, and Rory Litwin, translator. Humanism and Libraries: An Essay on the Philosophy of Librarianship. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2009
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