Surprise! It's the Golden Age of Libraries

Queens Borough Public Library, alongside the Chicago Public Library and the Scottsdale Public Library, are reimagining the library as a digital space; one where books will no longer be the focal point.

The libraries of tomorrow might be digital, but too often going digital, like going green, simply means reducing costs and cutting public services. With more and more millennials enrolled in on-line courses, MOOCS, distance degree programs, and other higher education opportunities not tied to a university campus, the public library is a central site of learning and innovation. As the books slowly disappear, and the university campus becomes virtual, it is essential that digital libraries maintain a prominent public space for local collaboration.

According to US News and World Report, "More than 6.7 million students — 32 percent of total higher ed enrollment — took at least one online course through a university during fall 2011, up from roughly 6.1 million students the year prior." This is in addition to the approximately 50,000 students enrolled in MOOCs. Many of these students rely on the resources of their public library system to complete their coursework.

Zachary Loeb (who writes as the Luddbrarian on the blog librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com) notes that "although college students have a huge amount of information available to them, this does not automatically mean that they have acquired all of the information literacy necessary to really make sense of this mass amount of information. As a result the library staff becomes an increasingly important resource for students wading through the information glut, especially as library staff are often available to students in numerous ways (in person, e-mail, chat, by phone)." This is particularly true for adult learners who return to higher education after many years away from the classroom and who often find virtual research daunting.

With so many millenials un-and-underemployed, the public library provides resources often unavailable elsewhere. Three-fourths of public libraries offer software and other resources to help patrons create résumés and employment materials, and library staff helps patrons complete online job applications. For cash-strapped and heavily indebted students, the public library provides a workspace that doesn't require the purchase of multiple lattes (or one latte slowly nursed over the course of several hours). 

Unfortunately this increased demand for public amenities does not coincide with an increase in public funding. The American Library Association maintains that 65% of American libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets. 

In part, the defunding of public libraries is easy because libraries are no longer about collections; they are about connections. They are centers of activity, and not necessarily centers of visible production. Michael Ridley, writer at Beyond-Literacy and a University of Ghelph (Canada) librarian on sabbatical, says: "The public library was often viewed as the 'university of the people.' This is still a good metaphor; it is one that needs to be put on steroids. Public libraries are now centers for social workers, entrepreneurial incubators, literacy classes, maker spaces, puppet shows, and hacker labs as well as places for books, magazines, and videos." 

Perhaps the most impressive adaption of library space is The Dorothy Lumley Center for Technology, Innovation, and Creativity at the Orange County Public Library (OCPL) in Orlando, Florida. The library currently offers over 1000 courses per month across 15 locations on topics ranging from video production to 3D printing, alongside tradition library programs in children's literature and adult literacy.

As a center of making, doing, and tinkering, the it aims to not compete with the local college experience, but to enhance the community's potential for lifelong exploration. This present iteration of the digital library could be a model to meet the social, intellectual, and creative needs of local communities.

There is one caveat: the initial funding for this center came from an endowment from the Kendrick B. Melrose Family Foundation. It is unclear how public libraries without a similarly benevolent gesture will be able to expand their resources and invest in the technology required to build a truly dynamic learning center particularly when 62% of libraries report that they are the only provider of free computer and Internet access in their community

"This is the golden age of libraries," Ridleys says.

If we are up to the challenge of funding them. 


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Gina Sipley

Before she was a teacher, Gina Sipley's writing appeared in The New York Quarterly, The Sierra Nevada Review, Slate, and other journals. Gina has been recognized as a Teacher of the Future for her commitments to technology and social justice, and as an Emerging Leader by the National Council of Teachers of English Conference on English Leadership. She loves gardening and loathes cooking. She is equal parts upstate and downstate NY.

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