When everyone is capable of creating and distributing content, what can a library look like?
An answer might be found in Tennessee. Blessed with a progressive mayor who wanted to make the library his legacy in a city that made a serious public investment in a fibre network, the Chattanooga Public Library embraced the challenge of innovation, inspiration and community learning. They converted the library’s fourth floor into a beta space for the community, a creative place to prototype experiments.
Nate Hill, Chatt Library’s assistant director for technology and digital initiatives, described their innovative new library model at the recent Future of Libraries forum, in Vancouver. From the library’s website, here is a summary of their vision:
The 4th floor is a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts. The 14,000 sq foot space hosts equipment, expertise, programs, events, and meetings that work within this scope. While traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.
The space hosts 3D printer maker fairs, linux user groups, code camps, data camps, local start-up business accelerators, speaker events, city council forums and regional planning processes to show the library as a neutral civic space, robotics and web development classes for kids, and space for “interesting people to spend time just to figure things out”.
At a time when the new inequity is the participation divide, Chatt Library has chosen to focus on access to tools and connectivity to support the community’s participation in the global information network.
Basic infrastructure includes: “kick butt wireless”, a large space, tech tools (such as a 3D printer, laser cutter, and vinyl cutter) and a team of creative, innovative and empowered staff who work in highly-networked, cross-functional, project teams. The key lies in how they work: transparently. The digi team works in public, co-working with the public. They’re not afraid to show their mess, their mistakes and their learning. Oh, and they all have more than one role.
There are all the ingredients for an innovative, welcoming, participatory knowledge-creation public learning and development environment. They’ve created a culture of excitement around moving the library forward.
At a time when people are predicting the extinction of the traditional library, this model provides inspiration for what’s needed to support a community in the global information age. If libraries are about sharing scarce resources for the benefit of a community, and supporting and facilitating that community’s access to and creation of knowledge, then Chatt Library is certainly on the right track. As library visionary David Lankes says:
The future of libraries rests not in their collections, but in their engagement with the communities they serve. Libraries are learning institutions that facilitate knowledge creation.
I’ve been thinking about this future in the context of my own library, how we can best provide access to connectivity and tools to support the learning and imagination of our community. Our library, like many other fine libraries, is still very traditional and hierarchical. Our strengths lie in collections and amazing staff who are keen and committed. My sense is that a whole lot of them are chomping at the bit to transition our library to something more participatory, inspiring and relevant.
We have a ways to go to foster a culture of learning and innovation that will enable us to become more nimble and adaptive. We have a lot of thinking and planning to do to create spaces that support learning experiences, true involvement and empowerment of our staff and community – spaces for learning, inspiration, performance, meetings, collaboration and innovation. And we can’t lose sight of our base – those loyal supportive patrons who love our library the way it already is!
One day, in the not too distant future, I know we’ll have spaces that better reflect how people want to use their library. And our creative and innovative staff will be opening doors for those curious minds, providing a dynamic centre for community engagement and development.
The point of that effort is to support the knowledge needs and aspirations of our community. It’s not about being a great library, but about aligning with the goals of a municipality and developing a great community where people are truly supported in the realization of their dreams.
This attitude, this goal, is reflected in Nate Hill’s intention for Chattanooga: “I’m looking to see results in a community and I happen to work in a library”.
Thank you, Chattanooga Public Library, for the inspiration.