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10 ideas to reinvent the library

Today is National Libraries Day. In Bristol, my local city library is organising speakers, musicians and installations to celebrate the day. But after years of funding cuts, closures and declining usage due to the rise of the internet, what is the future of the library? – does it even have one?

Trusted spaces 

I would  answer a most emphatic yes, it most definitely does: but some things need to change. Based on responses from over 2,000 people, a 2013 research report from the Arts Council England found that public libraries are seen as “trusted spaces, open to all, in which people continue to explore and share the joys of reading, information, knowledge and culture”. In an increasingly digital world such a physical space seems worth preserving, yet between 2007 and 2012 the number of visits to public libraries dropped by nearly 7% . However, while we might not visit libraries as often as we used to, the thought that they might no longer exist seems impossible – with communities protesting nationwide as council after council announces new closures or cuts in response to increasingly tight budgets.

But what if this isn’t the end for the public library? What if all it needs is a bit of re-imagining? Here’s my starter for ten….

10 ideas to reinvent the library 
  1. Embrace the digital: Libraries currently pivot around an outdated model of lending physical books in a world where digital access offers unrivalled convenience. ‘E-loans’ and digitised archive content needs to move from a periphery experiment to a core service.
  2. Community hubs: As a network of open, secular public spaces, libraries are unrivalled in their presence in our communities. Their crucial role as community hubs, hosting local events and offering space for local groups to meet, should be massively expanded.
  3. Maker spaces: A new social innovation revolution, makerspaces, hackspaces and 3D printing labs are re-imagining what’s possible for budding artists, designers, inventors and entrepreneurs. They should be core elements of our future libraries.
  4. Information curation: We live in a world of instant-access information overload. Any question we could ever want to ask can be typed into a search engine. What we increasingly need, and what libraries could offer, are services which filter and tailor information to our needs.
  5. Crowdfunded ownership: Where libraries face closure local communities could consider seeking a private benevolent buyer, or even buying the space themselves through charity grants, local campaigns and crowdfunded contributions.
  6. The Bibliotherapy Surgery: Embracing the act of reading as a form of therapy, bibliotherapy matches people up with literary resources to help them solve a problem. Links with doctors surgeries could mean bibliotherapy is offered as an alternative ‘social prescribing’ service.
  7. Gaming hubs: By embracing gaming technology and offering gaming spaces, libraries can offer exciting learning and socialisation opportunities, particularly to young adults: encouraging them to feel  ownership of the library as a public space.
  8. Repair cafes: At their core libraries are about information and knowledge sharing. So what better way to expand their service offering than by hosting regular or even permanent repair cafes where local people can share skills?
  9. Innovation incubators: Any knowledge economy such as ours hinges around a constant output of innovative thinking and ideas. The library offers the perfect combination of culture, physical space and resources to act as local innovation incubators.
  10. Hybrid spaces: Forget the library as a book lender: imagine instead an exciting hybrid space where books sit side by side with cinema screens, exercise spaces, knitting classes, cafes and conference facilities. 
Re-imagining the future 

By embracing the digital trends which threaten to undermine its existence, libraries can reinvent themselves as exciting and inclusive spaces which serve the whole community. Of equal importance, by adapting their offer and service model libraries can also massively increase monetisation opportunities and so help secure their future, free from the threat of closure. In an increasingly challenging public financing climate, independent sources of revenue will prove crucial to the survival of any public service which could be deemed non-essential.

The trouble is, I think most of us would argue that the library is an essential public service. It just needs a bit of re-imagining….

Photo Credit: Tiagø Ribeiro 

Comments (9)

  1. Max Van Biene Reply

    Great article! Think its also worth mentioning the changing role of Librarians. With so much digital content now available, i think Librarian will become increasingly important in helping people navigate this space and locate the exact types of information they are looking for. No matter what people say, Google can’t do everything!

    • Francesca Reply

      Hey max, I agree! Librarians could play such an interesting role in helping us to navigate the constant flow of new information, whether digital or traditionally published. The possibilities are endless!

  2. Nathan Burley Reply

    Hey Cesca,

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more with the things you’ve suggested. You’re right, we need some updated thinking in this space and a few more minds like yours to guide this transition for those who really cannot see what an opportunity this problem is handing them.

    Although I do agree that Maker Spaces / Repair Cafes / Innovation Incubators are a fantastic idea (and boy do I wish we had one locally!), and I agree that these can and should easily occupy a single space, my concern is the kit: A bottom wrung 3D printer, for example, would be at least £300-500. I would cost a huge investment to outfit even a city library / Maker Space like this. Where would the money come from? That’s not a dismissive question. I think the answer to that problem would bring the promise of a very exciting change in the way we use these spaces.

    I think the only thing which didn’t get a mention is great speakers. For me the library never really grabbed my attention. I learned to read late and as a result it has always been a thing which required effort, which discourages me even now. Instead, I have always learned best through, doing, listening and discussing. I’d say every major library should have a TED style speaker event system associated with it. There are incredible, inspirational people all around us and what better way to open peoples eyes, and blow their minds, than with amazing stories and like minds to share them with (oh and cake, there should really be cake at these things…)?

    The modern library should be about giving people the means to discover the incredible universe we live in and then giving them to tools to explore it with those around them.

    • Francesca Reply

      Hey Nathan, cheers so much for taking the time to comment. You’re absolutely right – the investment costs involved in retrofitting libraries with 3D printers are by no means insignificant. But there’s some really interesting makerspaces springing up all over the place which have secured funding from all kinds of sources. Crowdfunding and local ownership models offer some really exciting potential, alongside more traditional models such as charitable grant funding and private investment. Libraries could also consider monetising new assets such as 3D printers by ‘renting’ access to local companies and large organisations. I also completely agree RE speaker events – this should definitely had made my top ten! I was hinting at events like this in my hybrid spaces point, but you make it much clearer. I think TED events are by some way the leading blueprint in creating new and engaging ways to disseminate ideas and information. Here’s to the day when every local library has a TEDx event!

      • Nathan Burley Reply

        I agree on the ‘renting’ of equipment to local business. I have seen models from the US in which Makers purchase a subscription to the space, but the cost of the subscription is really high and I think libraries would be wise to avoid this route. Like you say though, there are other means of getting hold of investment, it’s just a shame that this isn’t coming from central government as an initiative to drive the economy (I mean how many amazing small businesses would come out of these kinds of cooperative multi-disciplinary ecosystems?)…. that said, maybe it’s best the government don’t get involved: they’d likely just make a mess of it!

        I’d love to see universities drive this kind of thing and think that our local uni in Lancaster would be perfectly placed to do so (since they have an engineering department, a great ICT and computing department and one of the best business schools in the north). Universities are increasingly facing irrelevance with extortionate fees and free online education everywhere, they really need to push initiatives like this. Plus, I’d love a Makerspace in Lancaster! :D

        • Francesca Reply

          I couldn’t agree more RE universities running the risk of becoming irrelevant, though I love how much innovation the issue is provoking around trying to create alternatives, such as the MOOC movement. I’m currently helping a new London-based free university project with a crowdfunding campaign, look out for This University is Free on kickstarter in the next few weeks! And Lancaster would be fantastic city for a new makerspace project, maybe it just needs the right local person to get the conversation started…?!

          • Sue Lawson

            Great article and interesting comments. We don’t have a Makerspace within Manchester Libraries but we do have Madlab (the Manchester Laboratory) and the library and Madlab have worked togeher for the past few years along with Manchester Girl Geeks, to run some inspired events like Curry and Coding, Coding for Girls, Mini Makerspace Weekenders. If there’s a hackspace or Makerspace, FabLab or 3D Printing club near your library it’s definitely worth getting in touch to see how you can work together. More could bedone though. Maybe Nesta or the Arts Council could look at funding Makerspaces and library partnerships. St Botolph’s in Colchester is another godd example of a exciting hackspace/library project http://libraries.communityknowledgehub.org.uk/blog/st-botolphs-libraryhackmaker-space

          • Francesca

            Hey Sue, thanks for your comments – and for the link, really interesting. Your Library Camp project looks great as well, keep up the good work! Sounds fantastic what you’re achieving in Manchester – I think coding clubs are such an important innovation, and not just for young people. I’m actually in the process of setting up a new cultural blog/online magazine focused around new ideas and social innovation. I wonder if you’d be interested in contributing a post? If you’d like to know more please do drop me a line – francesca at francescawakefield.com

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