The Next Chapter for Urban Libraries Is Here

How the fustiest urban amenity is rewriting its future

Story by Amanda Erickson

Illustrations by Tim Gough

Published on

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Judge Nelson R. Wolff has been an avid reader for more than seven decades. He’s written four memoirs; his home library boasts an extensive collection of rare books. So he’s an unlikely leader of a movement that renounces paper and ink.

But in Bexar County, Texas, Wolff is overseeing a technology experiment that seeks to recreate a struggling American icon: the public library.

Wolff is a county politician who represents the rapidly growing exurbs outside San Antonio. Many of his constituents are immigrants or families below the poverty line — precisely the sort of people most in need of the free classes, computers and other resources that libraries offer. But although the city of San Antonio boasts a 26-branch system, the county’s suburbs had no library at all. For many years, they didn’t even have a bookstore.

Wolff set out to change that. It was a task that even most career librarians wouldn’t envy. After all, in the age of e-books and Amazon and shrinking municipal budgets, building a library from scratch sounds a little like founding a print newspaper or starting a mimeograph business. Library patronage is plummeting nationwide, and local governments are slashing budgets.

Even if Wolff had wanted to build a traditional library system, Bexar County didn’t have the money to invest in thousands of books, movies and microfilm machines, or the shelves to hold them all. Wolff had a different idea — and ironically, it came from a book. Wolff had just read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and he was struck by the transformative potential of technology.

So with a shoestring budget of $2 million and the freedom to design a system from scratch, a 74-year-old bibliophile from southern Texas asked: What would a library look like without any books? His answer could very well redefine what these places look like in the 21st century.

What Makes a Library a Library?

Twenty years ago, Wolff’s question would have seemed absurd, even laughable. Book collections (or, at any rate, clay tablet collections) are as old as the Egyptian pyramids. The Great Library of Alexandria included 750,000 scrolls.

And they’ve been central to the American story. Benjamin Franklin founded the country’s first “subscription” library in Philadelphia in 1731; dozens of others served the citizens of the 13 colonies. Millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (nicknamed the “patron saint of libraries”) spent $55 million bringing 1,679 more libraries to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. As a young boy in Pittsburgh, Carnegie had no access to formal education. But he learned math, English and civics at the private library of merchant Colonel Anderson, who opened his 400-book collection to local boys on the weekends.

To Carnegie, libraries were at the core of America’s promise of equality. Anyone, he believed, even an immigrant, would have the chance to learn.

Today, there are about 120,000 libraries in America. That number includes school and academic research institutions alongside run-of-the-mill public town libraries. But their golden age has long since passed.

Only 48 percent of all Americans over 16 years old stepped foot into a library in 2013, down from 53 percent in 2012. Twenty-four percent of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2013. There are a lot of reasons for that decline — people are busier now, with television and movies and the Internet all vying for their time and attention. In a digital age, when most people can download most books without even leaving the couch, what can libraries offer their patrons? A place to work? Computers? DVDs? Job training?

In other words: What makes a library a library, anyway?

The James B. Hunt Jr. Library, at North Carolina State University, thinks it has an answer. University officials in Raleigh just spent $115 million building what some people call the most advanced library in the world.

Their starting point, of course, was very different than Bexar County’s. Unlike the Texas township, they already had materials and facilities, in spades. They also had a very specific audience. But like Wolff, university officials wondered if there wasn’t a better way to serve those patrons. When they stopped needing books, what would they need?

Most of the students at North Carolina State University are engineers, designers or computer scientists. There’s a veterinarian school, and people who study agriculture. “Our mission is to educate people in a very practical way,” explains David Hiscoe, Hunt’s director of communications strategy.

The old campus library had gotten unbearably crowded, Hiscoe says. So five years ago, the university set out to design a new building from scratch.

“We started asking people, ‘What do you need?’” Hiscoe says. “We wanted to create a space that would serve the people who used it, not our high-minded idea of what a library should be.” The students, he says, had two main requests — they wanted spaces to work together and opportunities to visualize data on some kind of grand scale.

With these ideas in mind, the team set out to create a new kind of space. But they wanted to do more than drop in a couple of extra computer terminals and couches. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they set out to reinvent the library.

That meant hiring Oslo firm Snohetta to design the building, a sleek modernist structure that looks like rows and rows of shiny silver dominos, lined up on a ramp. It also meant playing down the books, and playing up the many other amenities, like the hang-out spaces.

There are 241,000 pieces of technology in the James B. Hunt Library. Photo credit: Snohetta

“We knew if the Hunt Library was filled with state-supplied chairs, only a certain amount of fun things are gonna happen in there,” Hiscoe says. Instead, they put a zany array of modernist furniture, including the Hunt chair, a “slimmed down, slightly more energetic” piece designed by Aaron Moser, of the Thos. Moser furniture company. There’s even a blog devoted to the subject, which describes one seat as reminiscent of “riding a manta ray.”

“What students tell us is if you’re in the library for 3.5 hours, they’re not only gonna want to be comfortable. They want to be alive and stimulated,” says Hiscoe.

Then there’s the technology, all 241,000 pieces. Students can rent out everything from iPads to microtiles to Google glasses. A hive of robots retrieves and reshelves the books. (Patrons can no longer wander through the stacks themselves, but they can “browse” digitally — a computer will pull up a photo of a particular shelf; patrons can request whatever they like). Screens are everywhere.

There are rooms where students can build simulations of entire spaces. Hunt Library wanted to have a spot, say, for students to digitally recreate a 17th-century cathedral. With that, they could study how sound travels, to better understand how sermons stirred people. “All we had is text,” Hiscoe says. “We didn’t know what it sounded like, whether the preacher is up there screaming, whether the echo would do particular things to his voices.”

A team of students and professors also digitally “re-created” a speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at White Rock Baptist Church in 1960. Floor-to-ceiling screens displayed what King would actually have seen as he looked out into the crowd; audio technology modulated the volume of his talk so that students could get a feel for what it would actually have been like to hear the speech.

At first, people didn’t even think the space should be called a library, Hiscoe says. But once people actually get inside, they understand it as a focal point of the community, a place that brings people together to think, create and learn, a place that gives them the tools they need for these central missions. And isn’t that the point?

“No matter where people are, they have to look at their community and ask, ‘If it’s no longer books, what is it?’” Hiscoe says. “Every community will answer that question differently. But it’s a question that is answerable … Maybe you don’t buy a lot of Wallace Stevens … Maybe you buy a 3D printer instead.”

People Can Be a Competitive Advantage

Hunt is the kind of place public libraries look to when they think about how they might keep people coming through the doors. Not every city, though, has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend. Far from it.

Between 2001 and 2010, states cut public library funding by $800 million, a drop of 37.6 percent according to an Institute of Museum and Library Services June 2014 report. Eleven states, including California, Texas, Louisiana, Washington and Wyoming, don’t provide libraries any money at all.

That means libraries are increasingly reliant on local governments, which provide about 85 percent of public library funding nationally. This is good news for suburbs, where funding is up in 2014. But in cities, budget belts are being tightened. In Atlanta, for instance, 2014 brought a $6 million budget cut, a 36 percent reduction in public service hours and more than 100 layoffs.

It’s a tale Buffalo’s public libraries know too well. The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library followed the city’s rise and precipitous fall like a cart on a roller coaster track. Its budget began drying up in the 1970s, right around the time the city’s economy went up in flames.

“There’s this concept that the libraries have fallen on hard times just in the past decade,” says Director Mary Jean Jakubowski. “Actually, it’s truly a strong part of our history … There’s always been little ups and little downs.”

But the last decade has been particularly rough. In 2005, a $7 million cut forced the library to close 15 branches, lay off 200 people and reduce hours. (Catholic high-school girls protested the closings in uniform.) In 2009, the budget was cut by another $1.6 million; it lost another $1 million in 2011. Since then, $700,000 has been restored to the budget.

Today, its budget is at $22.6 million; there are 37 branches. Cincinnati, a city of Buffalo’s size (and one of the Library Journal’s “library stars”), boasts a budget of about $48 million, with 41 branches.

The ups and downs have been frustrating to Jakubowski. “The simple fact is, recessions lead to more library use,” she says. “If you don’t have a steady base of funding, how can you plan?”

In this climate, it’s hard to imagine Buffalo’s library installing state-of-the-art anything. But Jakubowski says her team has begun incorporating new technology just about everywhere. And it’s not just a play for patrons — it actually saves money.

Between 2001 and 2010, states cut public library funding by $800 million, a drop of 37.6 percent.

Sure, the Buffalo library can’t compete with Hunt. It’ll probably never even compare to some of the better-funded city systems, like Seattle or New York. But by making choices and re-thinking how and what visitors want, Jakubowski says they’ve been able to make big improvements. Library officials have installed high-speed Wi-Fi in their branches. They’ve added self-checkout lanes, an improvement that’s also freed up staff for other tasks. They run classes for seniors who want to learn to blog or even use email.

It’s part of a broader shift, a reclassification of sorts. Once, libraries saw their encyclopedias, their newspaper reels, their almanacs and atlases, as their core resource. The Internet has made much of that information accessible, freely, with the click of a button.

But too much information can be overwhelming, Jakubowski says. It can obscure what you actually need to know. So now, the library’s competitive advantage is its people — reference librarians who can help students find the information they need, sort through sources and dig up hard-to-find facts. In a way, people are renting librarians instead of books.

Here’s an example of how that plays out: Shrinking budgets might mean facilities can’t stay open for 18 hours a day, or even for 12. But it’s relatively affordable to have a librarian “on call,” able to answer frantic emails about research papers due first period. So the library set up a system called Ask Us.

“If you need homework help at one in the morning, we’ll have access to a professional staff member who can help them in order to complete their homework or whatever they’re working on,” Jakubowski says. Buffalonians can also book a one-on-one appointment with a librarian, who can talk them through all manner of problems. (I can vouch for this. I emailed the library’s main Ask Us line to set up an interview and got a response within 12 hours.)

“I’m very animated,” Jakubowski says excitedly over the phone. “I’m literally drawing squiggles on my paper to show how things have changed.”

Jakubowski, and the Buffalo library, aren’t alone. In the last decade, municipal budgets around the country have contracted rapidly. Rather than cut services entirely, city governments are trying to figure out ways to “do more with less.” That means using technology to supplement services on the cheap, something librarians have gotten good at.

“Libraries over the years have been extremely cost-efficient generally,” says Susan H. Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences in Washington, D.C. She points to libraries that have re-assigned staff by creating self-checkout booths and opportunities for patrons to do their own book reservations.

They’ve also been at the forefront, Hildreth says, of doing consumer research to understand exactly what their users need. One example, she says, is the Las Vegas-Clark County Public Library, which began offering courses on dealing with bankruptcy and foreclosure. Patrons told officials that’s what they needed.

“Many public services, particularly since the recession, have had a lot of funding challenges,” Hildreth says. “Even though the library isn’t the largest department, they’re often one of the most innovative.”

A Bridge for the Digital Divide

This new, service-oriented public library is something Laura Damon-Moore can get behind. Damon-Moore spent much of her career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison library, writing for their communications department.

In 2010, while doing some research, she came across a piece by Martha Glowacki, a local artist. Glowacki talked about the hours she spent tooling through the library’s collection of star charts and maps. It inspired “Starry Planet,” a haunting installation of compasses, pointy mobiles and birds (ironically, the piece now lives in the university library’s reference department).

“Martha’s story got me thinking about other artists, how they might use libraries for their work, if they’re using them at all,” Damon-Moore explained in an email. Could she, and her library, inspire artists to do more exciting, creative work? How?

Damon-Moore asked a handful of local artists about their relationship to the library. She put the most interesting anecdotes up on a website. That snowballed into a bigger idea, the Library as Incubator Project. The project teams up with libraries around the country to put together workshops and crafting spaces for patrons.

“What we’ve been able to do is to provide a slightly different and hopefully interesting lens through which to view traditional library services,” Damon-Moore says. “Instead of talking broadly about library early-literacy programs, we talk about and highlight ways to incorporate early arts education principles into early literacy programs … and we talk about library collections, but highlight certain portions of a library’s collection that are particularly useful for artists.”

Library as Incubator has been aggressive about finding spaces to host their workshops. They’re on Twitter and Facebook. They hit up library conferences. And they field a lot of questions from librarians who are curious about turning their library into a platform for creative work.

They’ve helped Forbes Library create a writer-in-residence program. At Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, they hosted a series of “labs” that taught kids to make all manner of things, from movies to music videos. They partnered with an Australian artist to come up with a steampunk role-play game for kids. The Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project collects 32-page sketchbooks from professional and amateur artists.

That same instinct — to come up with a library service that’s bigger than any one particular city or town — also inspired Dan Cohen, founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America.

The DPLA is a collection of seven million items, from artwork to family histories to photos of old cars from the NASCAR Hall of Fame (there are also thousands of books). Their collection is entirely online, free and available for “browsing” by anyone. The free part means that they don’t have the latest Stephen King thriller, explains Cohen. They’re looking for content that’s free and open access. The kind of stuff that might appeal, say, to an amateur historian or a fifth-grader working on a school project about the history of his town.

And their website is super-easy to use. You can search by location, for example, or for anything from a certain time. You can search visually, “paging” through hundred of pictures. They are also developing a workshop for librarians looking to enhance their digital skills, thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Amazon or Apple will replace the book part of the public library, that’s not our job,” he says. “Our feeling is what we’re doing is supplementary to the real physical libraries that are hubs of their communities. We don’t want to endanger that cultural center.”

The Incubator and the DPLA are two examples of dozens of startups, projects and ideas ready to fill up the empty spaces left once libraries clear away their books for good. There are libraries with tool banks, libraries where glassmakers can work, libraries where techies can build robots. The ideas about what libraries should do next are as ambitious, idiosyncratic and weird as the book collections they once hosted.

The only thing everyone seems to agree on? Books aren’t the point anymore.

When Judge Wolff went to officials with his vision, he knew he didn’t have the money to build up a book collection from scratch. The county scraped together $2 million to cover everything — the facility, the technology, initial staffing.

“He said, ‘Look, what if we created a library system that was entirely digital? It’s considerably less expensive to operate and to create,’” says Laura Cole, special projects coordinator for Bexar County’s library project. Luckily, his model wasn’t the Library of Alexandria — it was, quite literally, an Apple store.

Caroline Ramirez, left, and Sam Martinez, use computers at BiblioTech, a first of its kind digital public library. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In January 2013, Bexar County laid out its plan. They would turn an old community center into a 4,989-square-foot library, dubbed BiblioTech. There would be 150 e-readers (some of which patrons could check out for two weeks), 50 computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets. People could “check out” books to their smart phones or Kindles without ever stepping foot inside. But if a patron wants to come in, they’ll have the opportunity to sign up for digital literacy classes and access the Internet, a critical offering since 70 percent of San Antonio residents don’t have broadband Internet access at home. There are also toys for children (along with e-readers specially loaded with kids’ books and learn-to-read programs) and classrooms for people working on group projects.

“The social function of the library is being that third place, where people can gather to learn and be together in an edifying community and not feel like they’re loitering,” Cole says. “We made that.”

But would people come? And would they know how to use BiblioTech?

Cole says the library staffed up quickly, and spent nine months doing outreach to senior citizens and schools, and at community meetings. BiblioTech’s staff wanted to make sure people understood exactly what visitors could expect. And they wanted to make sure they weren’t scared off by the promise of sleek technology (crucial in a place where the functional illiteracy rate is 25 percent).

The Bexar Bibliotech’s design was inspired by the Apple Store but its function is much closer to a traditional library, despite the lack of musty books. Patrons check out e-books, use computers and participate in activities with library staff.

“We thought the elderly were going to be a really hard sell,” Cole says. “Children grow up with technology whereas some of the elderly might not have had that benefit.” So they visited assisted living and nursing homes, including, ironically, the one across the street from the new location.

In many ways, BiblioTech offers libraries a way forward. It’s a relatively cheap project (essential in this era of belt-tightening), and it offers patrons a lot of what they say they want — computers, Internet, a place to do homework.

“The social function of the library is being that third place, where people can gather to learn and be together in an edifying community and not feel like they’re loitering.”

But it’s still a trade-off. Reading a book requires a different skill set than reading an e-book or using a computer. And there’s something particular about reading something in print. “I think there’s some value to the ability to hold a book in one’s hand,” Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, told CityLab in 2013, particularly when it comes to picture books for children. “There’s something very special about the tactical experience, a personal connection that happens there.”

Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library, agrees. Paper books serve a different reader maybe, and a different purpose. But readers still request them. “Our readers tell us, e-book for the plane, real books for the beach,” he says. “From where I’m sitting, e-books are popular. But they’re not more popular than books, than places for kids to play and learn social skills.”

The Takeaway

  • Only 48 percent of all Americans over 16 years old stepped foot into a library in 2013, down from 53 percent in 2012.  24 percent of Americans didn’t read a single book. Libraries must evolve to stay relevant.
  • In the Internet Age, being a repository of information isn’t the library’s strongest draw, the library’s competitive advantage is its people —  librarians who can track down resources, teach skills and expose you to the writer you didn’t know you needed to know.
  • A city’s library should be its civic and intellectual heart. If approached with creativity and an appetite for social justice, the digitalization of libraries can enhance the institution’s role as a community educator and connector.

And when you’re only offering digital versions of books, the cost adds up quickly. Publishers charge libraries a much higher fee to license e-books. They’ve also tried limiting the number of times a library can “lend” an e-book. Some books, libraries can’t license at all. Publishers argue that e-books, which readers can download from home (as they would an e-book they bought themselves) cut into their sales in a way paper copies (which patrons must physically pick up) don’t.

San Antonio resident Jim Berg, who seeks out large-print thrillers and popular history books, says that disparity plays out at BiblioTech. When he checked out the collection, he was disappointed. “I read non-fiction, I read history,” he says. “There was nothing I was interested in.” Berg says he was planning a trip to Normandy; The Longest Day wasn’t available. Instead, he turned to Amazon, where he could download the book to his iPad instantly. Amazon even offers a free app that’ll read books to people with poor eyesight.

“That’s who the library wants to mimic, right?” Berg says. “If you’re a library and want to grow up and be like Amazon, you need to have the same titles, and a smattering of the new and most popular.”

Cole points out that e-book access is a problem all libraries struggle with. And she says BiblioTech has put a lot of energy into helping people understand and access their collection. They show seniors how to change the font size on digital books. “A lot of our seniors recognize they need to know more,” Cole says. “They want to keep up and communicate with their grandkids. So they’re gonna learn.” Like the 92-year-old, she says, who started a blog about his childhood — his grandchildren leave comments.

BiblioTech has a staff member focused entirely on outreach. She runs trainings around the county on working with digital resources. “One of the things that I kept hearing over and over again was that digital collections weren’t being used because people didn’t know how to use them,” Cole says. “We wanted to change that.”

So far, about 24,000 people in the unincorporated county of about 400,000 have registered for the service. Cole expects to see 100,000 by September. And they’re pushing outward. Cole says they’re planning to open satellite “libraries” in jury rooms, in public transportation stations, even in a local military hospital. Charter schools are calling, Cole says, to see if BiblioTech will help them build up reading spaces in their schools. BiblioTech sets up at community events and fairs.

In all of these experiments, BiblioTech is becoming something new — a library that’s not a library because of its books, or even because of its physical space. What makes BiblioTech a library, by Cole’s estimation, is that it makes it easier for people to learn. It gives them new tools, new classes and new people who’ll help them take advantage.

“We’re taking the library to the public,” Cole says. “Let’s get this in front of people, let’s get reading in their face.”

It’s a vision for a library as Andrew Carnegie imagined — a place where the poor can go to better themselves, to find a job and to access the resources so easily accessible to the rich. In the digital age, that means providing Internet and computers and classes. It might mean providing classes on how to apply for college and free meals and subsidized daycare too. That’s why the Pema, Arizona library has a nurse available full time, who can help visitors identify health challenges. And why San Francisco’s system has its own social worker on staff, to help homeless individuals who come in for a free, quiet place to spend the day.

In today’s age of inequality, maybe libraries aren’t trying to bridge the space between print and e-books. They’re trying to bridge a much bigger one: the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Amanda Erickson is the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s PostEverything.

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Tim Gough has been working in Philadelphia as a designer and art director for various agencies and design firms for the past eight years. His art is influenced by the screen printed process and mid-century graphics. In 2007, Tim left the agency life behind to pursue illustration and art full time. His work has been found in books, magazines, newspapers and other ephemera nationwide and abroad. Tim also publishes a limited-edition zine called ‘Cut and Paste,’ a collection of drawings and things. He frequently shows his drawings and screen prints in various galleries and shows.

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