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Who says libraries are dying? They are evolving into spaces for innovation

Today’s libraries are offering skill-building programs. Knight Foundation, CC BY-SA

Who says libraries are dying? They are evolving into spaces for innovation

Today’s libraries are offering skill-building programs. Knight Foundation, CC BY-SA

With the expansion of digital media, the rise of e-books and massive budget cuts, the end of libraries has been predicted many times over.

And while it is true that library budgets have been slashed, causing cuts in operating hours and branch closures, libraries are not exactly dying. In fact, libraries are evolving.

As a researcher of youth learning in out-of-school spaces, I have studied the online information habits of youth. I am currently studying how librarians are supporting teen learning and teaching coding to novice learners.

So, how are libraries changing and what is their future?

Making a difference

Traditionally, libraries provided no-cost access to books and a quiet place to read.

But many of today’s public libraries are taking on newer roles. They are offering programs in technology, career and college readiness and also in innovation and entrepreneurship – all 21st-century skills, essential for success in today’s economy.

Look at some of the examples of this change happening across the nation.

In 2014, the San Diego Public Library Central Library opened the IDEA Lab, where students can explore and learn new technology with the support of their peers.

The lab hires teen interns to run workshops on a variety of topics of their interests. These range from Photoshop to stop-motion animation and skill-building technology projects.

These interns, coming from schools with predominantly African-American and Latino students, also get to work with a librarian to plan activities that give them experience related to their career goals.

Libraries are becoming spaces for collaborative learning. Jisc infoNet, CC BY-NC-ND

Similarly, in early 2015, librarians at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina created a “maker space” called Idea Box, a place where area youth are invited to learn to 3D model, 3D print, knit and code. This creates learning opportunities for the youth and develops their interests in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) careers.

In another such example, the Seattle Public Library started a partnership in 2014 with the Seattle Youth Employment Program. Together, they have designed curriculum to build digital and information literacy skills.

Alongside individual libraries, national organizations such as YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association), who strengthen library services for teens, are already making changes to what they view as the purview of the library professional. Their recent report focuses on changing the role of library staff to support young people as they explore and develop career paths.

Libraries for the homeless

This is not all. Libraries are expanding beyond their traditional roles and reaching further into their communities.

Since spring 2014, the Brooklyn Public Library has been running “transitional services” that focus on providing programs such as “pop-up libraries” for people who are homeless, as well as opportunities for children to read books with parents who are incarcerated.

Even institutions going through budget cuts strive to maintain this component of serving the community. For example, when the Detroit Public Library had to deeply slash its budget during the economic downturn, alongside reducing its branch hours to 40 per week, it reworked its schedule to maximize the number of evening and weekend hours it was open, so as to best serve the community.

Future will be service

Libraries in the 21st century are going to be less about books and more about the services that library staff provide to their communities.

Miguel Figueroa of the Center for the Future of Libraries sums it up best, when he says:

The library of the future, whether the physical space or its digital resources, can be the place where you put things together, make something new, meet new people, and share what you and others bring to the table. It’s peer-to-peer, hands-on, community-based and creation-focused.