With a shift to online resources well underway, “the most trusted civic institutions” are in a good position to deal with the changing future. Many companies and public institutions were unprepared for the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. There was one notable, perhaps even surprising, exception: the nation’s public libraries.
For more than a decade, these seemingly traditional institutions had been investing in a range of technologies and media. Libraries now balance two stacks: the physical with the so-called digital full stack. With a wealth of electronic books, streaming platforms and of course Zoom, many were ready, with some adjustments, to provide services for their communities. But no one could have predicted that 2020 would create the moment when “our libraries, the most trusted civic institutions in the country, would become totally virtual,” said Anthony Marx, the president and chief executive of the New York Public Library, the nation’s largest library system after the Library of Congress.
But will virtual offerings eclipse physical locations? Librarians across the country foresee institutions that will blend the physical with the digital, increasing their emphasis on their critical community role by offering free Wi-Fi and social services as well as a place where physical books and DVDs coexist with e-books and online platforms. For example, the Midtown branch of the New York Public Library, the largest in the system, is waiting to reopen after a total overhaul. Renamed the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, the location will now include classroom space and an entire floor dedicated to adult learning, such as teaching English and technology, Mr. Marx said.
The reimagined branch also has programming areas, a rooftop terrace designed for events, quiet spaces for patrons and sound studios for recording podcasts. Other cities have similar plans, which often also include maker spaces for artisans, “which have grown like crazy,” said Anthony Harris, an architect with the design firm Gensler. Wish lists now often include 3-D printers and additional mobile hot spot devices that can be checked out to provide Wi-Fi at home for the many Americans who still lack broadband.
“All of our goals will be just as important after we’re past this period as they were when we were planning. We will need these spaces,” said Michelle Jeske,the executive director of the Denver Public Library and the current president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. The pandemic-induced recession could prompt greater need for physical locations, she added, as people come in for help with job searches or filing for unemployment benefits.
Although renovations already factored in technological advances, in a few instances, some tinkering was in order. Before the pandemic, the big information and circulation desks that were often a fixture in library design had fallen out of favor, Jo Giudice, the director of the Dallas Public Library, said.
“We instead started using mobile desks that we could move around the floor,” she said. “But these are open on all four sides and we want to keep our staff safe. So now we’re moving these desks back to a wall because we don’t want people standing shoulder to shoulder.” Ms. Giudice added that the library is also forgoing the communal tables that had become ubiquitous in office design across many industries. “We were going to use larger tables that were hard-wired, but we’re instead going to have smaller public tables that seat one or two people that will have access to outlets, but not hard-wired, so we can move the tables,” she said. Smaller tables not only reflect coronavirus concerns, but also afford more flexibility for the use of the room.
Some of the changes enacted during the pandemic at first glance appear small, but are actually significant and will remain. Curbside pickup or grab-and-go services allow people to retrieve selections without stepping foot inside. A few libraries had already experimented with this option, but it is likely to become a mainstay in the future.
“We only had this option at one of our 29 branches in Dallas, at a location that served many senior citizens and where access was difficult for some,” Ms. Giudice said. “But it will remain with us. I think it will be a long time before people will be comfortable coming back in to a large building.” “People like the option,” Ms. Jeske, of the Denver system, said, “so why not continue to keep allowing people to get books this way? It also removes barriers about access and convenience.”
The research arm of Gensler, the architecture and design firm, has been studying libraries for several years. In a 2019 report Gensler found that libraries were now “people-centered not collections centered,” a change that upended popular preconceptions, said Mr. Harris, who participated in the study, as well as a survey this spring of more than 200 librarians to determine how the pandemic has affected them. Besides the obvious concerns of closed buildings and staff safety, Gensler asked librarians which attributes would “comprise the next generation of libraries.”
Those ranked the highest were community and social services; decentralized library space; more pop-ups and bookmobiles; low-touch kiosks; drive-up pickup; webinar-based story times and programs; technology-integrated conference spaces available to the community; and remote reference and information search services.
The increased reliance on digital works has also highlighted a problem that libraries face: the cost of technology. OverDrive, a popular platform, provides e-book downloads to library cardholders. The New York Public Library employs SimplyE, its own proprietary system, which Mr. Marx says embeds strong privacy protections for its users.
But the libraries still need to purchase a license for each e-book. Publishers typically charge libraries more than consumers, based on the assumption that the lending of e-books erodes profits, since they can be read by multiple users. (Typically, only one user can download an e-book at a time.) Macmillan Publishers last fall prevented libraries from acquiring the electronic versions of its titles until eight weeks after publication. But with the pandemic, the publisher in March did an about-face. It declined, however, to respond to questions about its change of heart.
Amazon Publishing, an arm of the tech giant, had gone one step further in limiting access. While its physical books, along with their audio versions, are available for purchase, libraries cannot buy electronic books. Libraries protested and last October, the A.L.A. filed a report with the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives on the negative impact of the practice.
Alan Inouye, director of the association’s Office for Information Technology Policy, said it has “had a few calls with Amazon in 2020, but they didn’t see a way forward and I haven’t spoken to them since the pandemic began.”
In an email, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We believe libraries serve a critical purpose in communities across the country, and we are exploring ways to make Amazon Publishing e-books available to libraries in a way that best reflects the needs of libraries, patrons, and authors.”
Libraries are also embracing their role in providing community services, including having social workers on their staffs to help the homeless or those with emotional problems who may frequent the library.
That sometimes brings about design challenges, Ms. Jeske said. Denver law, for example, requires bathroom stall doors to be short, so that if an individual overdosed in the bathroom, he or she could be discovered and treated.
But smaller doors may be at odds with the desire to provide privacy. How those two competing concerns can be reconciled is still being worked out, Ms. Jeske said.
“We welcome everyone. We want to keep people in, not keep people out.”
Overall, there is a recognition that libraries are often the melting pot of a community, bringing together diverse ages, races and interests. “Given that the country is tearing itself apart,” Mr. Marx said, “perhaps libraries can help to repair our civic fabric.”
Reprinted from New York Times, Ellen Rosen, Sept. 24, 2020