It looks like a boxy robot, or maybe a poor man's ATM. With simple lines and a glowing screen, the Cupertino Library's JobView kiosk beckons to job hunters interested in reviewing, printing, e-mailing and applying for jobs listed in Bay Area newspapers. A resume is not required; instead, a mini-application takes less than four minutes to complete on the touch-screen and is electronically submitted directly to employers.
A boon to job seekers, the kiosk is also one of the newest technologies turning the traditional library's role inside out.
Gone are the days of dusty shelves, cellophane-protected book covers and librarians who say "shush." Experts predict libraries in the future will be more akin to community and cultural centers and gathering places for services, education and collaboration.
Say hello to computer classes and Wii stations, information kiosks and musical performances.
As archives of information, libraries have historically served as repositories of books, papers, manuscripts and important documents, but that role is changing, according to futurists, who study and predict cultural, demographic, societal and economic shifts.
Nowadays, people can access a flood of information anytime, anywhere, at the click of a mouse. With the Google Book Search project making millions of public-domain books available online or searchable in a giant database, librarians including members of the Palo Alto Library Advisory Commission are asking how libraries can compete with the Internet in the "Google age." (See sidebar on Palo Alto's plans.)
"People who in the past visited libraries to find specific pieces of information are now able to find that information online. The vast majority of people with specific 'information needs' no longer visit libraries," said Thomas Frey, who has written a series of articles on the transformation of libraries. Frey is executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute, a think-tank in Louisville, Colo.
But rather than resort to hand-wringing over their relevancy in the Internet age, librarians are conjuring up new models for drawing the public in.
In the library of the future, they say, librarians will take on new roles, space will be reconfigured to reflect new and broader purposes, and the ongoing digital revolution will birth a new kind of public institution that is no longer bound by bricks and mortar.
If librarians will need to reinvent themselves, it's not because they are becoming obsolete, according to David Loertscher, a professor at San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, the largest library-teaching school in the nation.
To the contrary: The library professional will be needed like never before to help with increasingly complicated searches of information, he said.
"The problem is the quality of information. Who vets the information?" he asked rhetorically.
Loertscher, who lectured this week at San Jose State University on "Should Libraries Evolve or Reinvent Themselves?," said that librarians of the future -- in fact, even the present -- will have to become equally comfortable in the tangible and the virtual worlds. To reach today's plugged-in youth, for example, a real-time librarian will need to jump into a world created online.
Loertscher teaches his library-science students to use the "learning common" tool, in which an information professional sits in on an online conversation, helping teachers and students who have created assignments and projects on iGoogle pages.
The librarian in coming decades "will burrow right into the center of where the clients are now," commenting on assignments and offering reference and research materials that support projects, Loertscher predicted. In his model of the future, the librarian goes into the student's space, rather than the student coming to the building, he said.
"It's very proactive and moving into the space where kids (are comfortable). You have to take their social-networking skills and bend them over into their learning skills," he said.
Technology will move at such a rapid pace that librarians will need to constantly upgrade their abilities, according to Loertscher.
"I'm teaching my students that the Internet will run right over the top of you, so you have to learn very early," he said.
Rather than shunning competition from the Internet, libraries will increasingly build online branches, where users can download information and technology 24/7. The online branch could provide an interface between users and the community -- a kind of electronic village -- where programs such as Kete, which can create digital museums, can serve as a yearbook of the community and where users can add visuals or videos to online conversations with software called Jing, Loertscher said.
The Santa Clara County Library is headed in that direction. In its 24/7 electronic library, it already offers a place for teens that includes online homework help and links to websites designed by teens about fashion, music and other topics. Music and DVD "hot picks" and downloads, along with books on topics sensitive to teens, such as death and grief, gay and lesbian identity and more, can be accessed through the site. A kids' section divides materials into age-appropriate levels, from picture books to DVDs and novels to graphic novels.
Adult sections on the website include genealogy resources, tax-information links, book groups, music streaming and dozens of other resources.
But not all library visits in the future will be digital. There is still a place for the library as a community institution, but the primary role will shift to that of a cultural center that reflects a community's heart and soul, according to Frey. Social-networking as well as learning environments are becoming central to the new library.
Specialized nooks and spaces offer a variety of social and educational experiences -- or privacy. Classes, meetings, after-school tutoring and performances are already taking place in technology-training centers, conference rooms, teen zones, quiet study areas and even theaters in county libraries. Patrons at some libraries can even bring in food; in Belmont, staff invited a hot-dog vendor to dish up wieners in an adjacent courtyard.
The new strategy seems to be working. When the county's newest library, the 60,000-square-foot Milpitas Public Library, held its grand opening Jan. 10, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended, according to Linda Arbaugh, the library director. The facility has seen attendance increase 22 percent since it reopened, she added.
"Libraries aren't going to go away. There's always going to be a place for them, and I think there's always a place for books. We are busier than ever. The economy has taken a downturn and that means more people come here where services are free. There are hardly any school libraries anymore. We take up that role," she said.
The two-story building has private reading rooms, group-study rooms, a reading court with magazines and newspapers, local history area, computer-training center and a conference room with a large flat-screen television. A multipurpose room/theater with a stage has a 200-person capacity, where book sales and live concerts are held. Recently, a blues band performed for Black History Month, Arbaugh said.
On the second floor, areas include the reference section, Teenopolis -- a book and magazine area -- and a teen homework center.
The library has 107 computers. Situated across the street from senior housing, 12 computer stations in the technology center are reserved for seniors who will come to learn computer skills, she said.
The children's library includes an activity room with overhead projector, international language collection, a quiet, upholstered reading area for parents and children, and computer area.
On a recent Thursday, resident Hermilo Isla sat on a pint-sized chair, helping his three children on computers.
"The best thing here are these," he said, holding up a handful of library cards belonging to his children, nieces and nephews. Three families, including nine children, share his home. The library provides a safe environment where the children have access to computers and materials they use for contests the families arrange, he said.
Recently, the children held a contest focused on endangered animals, each writing a paragraph and drawing an animal. They researched the animals at the library, and the winner got a pass to Subway for a sandwich or a burger at In-N-Out Burgers, Isla said.
His 12-year-old niece Vanessa won first place. She uses the library computer to e-mail her father and to download music, she said.
She did not hesitate to describe her vision for the library of the future: "Bigger -- like a shopping mall," she said.
Isla said he enjoys the library's adult sections on the second floor, but on a rainy Thursday, the small historical museum caught his attention. He spent an hour reading and looking at pictures of old Milpitas.
"It's like you're walking within a time zone. You get that inquisitiveness about that history," he said.
He expressed appreciation for the new library. "Here it's big, spacious. The built-in (289-stall) garage is cool. When it's raining you don't get wet."
Isla gazed out one of the large windows. Outside, trees and a green lawn dripped in the pattering rain.
"Sometimes when you're tired you can look outside," he said.
A key to successful libraries involves making the spaces comfortable -- think "living room" -- and taking down barriers to service, according to Melinda Cervantes, county librarian of Santa Clara County Library. The library has been rated No. 1 in the nation in its population category for several years by Hennen's American Public Library ratings.
The county system took out large service desks, which patrons found intimidating, and added smaller kiosks and "perches," she said. The library added multi-million-dollar automated check-in centers at its branches, eliminating the cumbersome check-in and sorting process and freeing up staff to attend to patrons' needs.
Cervantes said the library has taken an aggressive approach to marketing and to discovering what library users want. Her staff tests new devices such as the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, iPods and other personal devices created by Silicon Valley companies. Staff members "play" for six months with each device before choosing new products they think users will want to use. They conduct research to identify why non-users don't have library cards, and teams go to schools and speak to clubs, she said.
"A lot of it is stepping outside the door. We encourage Rotary and others to engage (with us) and we have a whole body of networks. We are constantly reinventing ourselves," she said.
Cervantes gave a wry laugh when asked about how much of a threat Google might be to libraries.
"My best day was when I got a call from someone from Google looking for an answer to a question," she said.