The 'library of the future' begins to emerge

Digital age brings competition, changing role for libraries

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.

Related material:

Palo Alto plans for the future

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2009 at 11:06 am

This library looks good.

I wonder if they are open every morning at the same time, and don't close early some evenings and not others?

I wonder if they have to wait for a couple of weeks to get a book on hold?

I wonder if we will find these improvements when our library (s?) are fixed?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

How about total on line with postal delivery and return like Netflix, and convert all the library building to homeless shelters?

Like this comment
Posted by Been there, done that
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Walter, The Netflix model has been considered and tried for public libraries - and found wanting.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2009 at 8:17 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

How about electric delivery vehicles?
We also tried dial-a ride and that didn't work out, but what if current advances in GPS and in routing were added to the mix?
They might even rent out that Kindle thing once the outrageous overprice is corrected, and distribute most texts over the fiber optic net. My God, Been there, I'm supposed to be the fuddy duddy, and yet the city is running with 19th century technology and 16th century understanding of governance.

Like this comment
Posted by rhody
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2009 at 9:54 am

I use the reserve system at Palo Alto libraries and find it wonderful. I can search the catalog from home, put in my request, and many times I get the book/dvd/etc. in 2 or 3 days. It's a nice mix of the electronic 'new' and the printed 'old' with maximum convenience.

Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2009 at 10:46 am

“…the ongoing digital revolution will birth a new kind of public institution that is no longer bound by bricks and mortar.”

So why do we need five brick and mortar libraries? And where is the money coming from to pay for all the things listed in the companion article at Web Link ?

Like this comment
Posted by a taxpayer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 15, 2009 at 7:54 am

they want new stuff from the taxpayers to replace the old stuff from the taxpayers? WTH

Like this comment
Posted by I like "Shush!"
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 16, 2009 at 10:24 am

I wish the librarians, especially at the Main Library, could enforce shushing people, especially those with noisy, ill-behaved children.

Did the laws change and librarians are now too PC to ask people to be quiet? Is it the newer trend? It's really interruptive and distracting to deal with ongoing noise issues at the library - people on their cell phones while perusing DVDs, people's kids climbing furniture and being really loud. It's extremely annoying.

Like this comment
Posted by Sue Dremann
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Mar 16, 2009 at 11:39 am

Sue Dremann is a registered user.

Correction to the story: The story listed the RFID system as costing $14 million. There's a decimal point missing! It should have read $1.4 million. The cost includes an automated materials-handling system similar to the one at Milpitas Library, which was shown in a photograph in the story.

Like this comment
Posted by Diane Jennings, Library Director
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 16, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Pat asks why we need five brick and mortar libraries in light of the impact of the digital revolution on libraries.

I think the answer is in the first part of the sentence she took her quote from: "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."

With the passage of the library bond in November, Palo Altans have agreed to reconfigure and expand our libraries to provide spaces for these new and broader roles. The improvements in technology have enabled libraries to provide some, but not all, of their services in more effective ways.

How will we fund the technology projects proposed for the Palo Alto City Library?

The technology plan is a multi-year one. Currently, we are working on a proposed timeline to implement the projects. Large projects would be funded by the City's capital fund for technology. Small projects might be funded from the Library's annual operating budget. We'll be looking at the possibility of grant funding for some. But, until the economy picks up and the City's budget situation improves, we'll have to adjust our preferred implementation timeline.

Like this comment
Posted by Library user
a resident of another community
on Mar 16, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Three comments here:

(1) There's a lot of value in being able to go to a library and find books you weren't looking for nearby the book you were. I think this benefit is much harder to find on the internet.

(2) The Google Books project indeed gives some access to books but not everything you might want from a digital source. I believe, for example, that you cannot get the get the text in text form, but only as images. That is, you get a picture of the text, not the text itself.

(3) Another internet source for books is the Internet Archive (Web Link).

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Chick-fil-A quietly starts delivering out of DoorDash kitchen in Redwood City
By Elena Kadvany | 31 comments | 4,027 views

Disposing of Disposables
By Sherry Listgarten | 24 comments | 3,062 views

By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 1,532 views

Differentiating Grief from Clinical Depression
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,140 views

Anonymous Sources: Facebook and YouTube suppressing important questions and discussion
By Douglas Moran | 20 comments | 1,016 views