Management & Labor

Revolution in the Stacks

Shalique Edmond has come to the Loft at Charlotte's children's library, as he does nearly every Saturday, to record a hip-hop song. In the library's...
by | May 31, 2008

Shalique Edmond has come to the Loft at Charlotte's children's library, as he does nearly every Saturday, to record a hip-hop song. In the library's new music and animation studio, a round room jammed with computers, microphones and movie-making equipment, Shalique, who is 14, cuffs earphones over his braids while his friend, Kyree Crawl, mixes beats on a Macintosh. The boys giggle as the track comes together, but as Shalique prepares to rap over it, he puts on a serious air. "If I'm comfortable with the words, it will work the first time," he says, sounding cocky. "I'm a professional."

Music, Shalique explains, is in his blood. His father was a music producer and his uncle was a singer. Shalique once had a place in his home where he would make music, but he couldn't share his work because he didn't own a CD burner. He had pretty much stopped rapping altogether until he discovered "Studio i" at the library. Shalique started cutting CDs, and after a brief attempt at trying to sell them, he began giving them away to schoolteachers or anyone else who might have a listen. He also began uploading tunes to his MySpace page, so that anyone in the world could hear him on the Internet. "You go to the library to read," he says. "But they have the whole package here."

The librarians at the Loft don't necessarily love Shalique's music. What they do love is that he, like a growing number of other teenagers, thinks to come to the library at all. The draw for Shalique may be making music, but while he's around, he also spends time on the computers. Other kids at the Loft use the library's equipment to create animated videos and upload them to YouTube, take pictures of themselves to put on Facebook and play video games such as Dance Dance Revolution, Rock Band and all the Wii sports games. A few teens are even known to read books here, sinking into one of the Loft's plush orange chairs, or burrowing into one of the cozy booths where there are no rules against putting their feet up on the furniture. "It's a bit like Wal-Mart," says Robin Bryan, a library technology manager. "They come in for one thing and discover something else."

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system hasn't always tried so hard to appeal to teenagers. For a long time, public libraries everywhere viewed teens as unreachable -- too old for story time, yet too rowdy for the reading room. Now, libraries are beginning to see serving teens not as a nuisance but as a critical test of whether they can survive in the 21st century. Today's crop of teenagers is the first to never have known a world without Google. If libraries can find ways to click with these "digital natives," then today's teens might just keep coming back to the library as adults. On the other hand, if libraries ignore the changing media habits of young people, they may well slide into oblivion.

"The future is iffy for public libraries," says Kimberly Bolan, the author of a book on designing teen spaces within libraries. "If we want to be relevant going into the future, this is a group we cannot miss."

Library 2.0

Catering to teenagers is just one response to some very big questions public libraries are facing these days. Not long ago, libraries enjoyed something of a monopoly on the public's access to information. It was a benign monopoly, of course. But closed stacks, endless lists of rules and the shushing librarian all became symbols of a stuffy order that served institutional interests. Now, the Internet is forcing libraries to change that mentality -- and quickly. Today, the vast majority of information searches begin not at a library reference desk but at an Internet search engine. The troubling fact for libraries is that customers really seem to prefer the latter. A few years ago, the Online Computer Library Center asked library users to compare search engines and librarians in four areas: the quality of information provided, quantity of information, speed of conducting research and overall experience. The search engines beat librarians in every category.

The OCLC survey also found that two out of three Americans, when they think of libraries, think of books. In other words, books are the library brand. But when it comes to books, libraries face more competition than ever. Big-box bookstores have won the affections of many bookworms by slashing prices, selling lattes and creating reading spaces that are more comfortable than a row of carrels. Meanwhile, several for-profit and not-for-profit efforts are underway to scan millions of books into searchable Internet databases. The most ambitious of those scanning projects, run by Google, aspires to create a universal online library of every book ever published.

If the news sounds all bad, library directors can point to some positive trends. Nationally, circulation of books and other materials at libraries keeps edging up each year, despite the Internet revolution. Currently, many cities are seeing big increases in visitation, as is common during economic downturns. And in many libraries, the public-access computers are in demand from open to close -- a reminder that even if the universal library seems closer to reality, universal broadband access is still a long way off. "It's fine to say that Google is Google-izing the world," says Chicago Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey, "but if you're poor and trying to apply for a job, often the only way to do it is online and the only place to do it is at the public library."

Still, the library world seems particularly obsessed with its future right now. Library conferences are abuzz with talk of "Library 2.0," a concept that boils down to the idea that libraries should offer the services that customers say they want -- not what librarians wish they wanted. Meanwhile, the Urban Libraries Council has asked the futurist writer Joel Garreau to help big-city library directors imagine the library of 2020. All agree that for libraries to stay relevant in their communities -- and adequately funded by government -- they're going to have to adapt. The question is, how?

"If people only go to Google, or to Barnes & Noble, then what are we?" asks Laura Isenstein, a former library director in San Antonio and Des Moines who now works as a library consultant. "We have to change our role and be part of the fabric of the community beyond books. And we have to go out and ask our customers: What is it you want us and need us to be?"

Dumping Dewey

Some radical ideas are emerging. One British library, convinced that its identity was too intertwined with dusty books sitting on shelves, dropped the word "library" from its name altogether. It now goes by the moniker "idea store." Contra Costa County, California, recently put library vending machines at BART rail stations, allowing commuters with a library card to take out or return books on the go. And last year, in a move that some librarians viewed as heresy, a branch of the Maricopa County library system in Arizona scrapped the Dewey Decimal System. Instead, collections were arranged by areas of interest, as in a bookstore. Marshall Shore, the administrator who is both loved and loathed in the library world as the man who dumped Dewey, believes the experiment has been a success. "The day we opened, we pulled in extra staff to deal with the mass confusion we were pretty sure was going to happen," Shore says. "But then we saw customers walk in and their lips would go, 'Gardening,' as they saw a sign and went that way."

The most visible changes going on in libraries these days take their cues, as Shore did, from retailing. Cafes and coffee shops are quickly becoming standard offerings at libraries. So are comfortable seating and "living room" areas where patrons are encouraged to stay a while. A growing number of libraries are hiring retail consultants to analyze where patrons go in the library and what they do there. San Jose, California, for example, asked Paco Underhill, the author of "Why We Buy," to do a "touch point" analysis of three branch libraries. His research found, among other things, that librarians needed to get out from behind the reference desk and talk to customers more.

The biggest idea libraries are stealing from retailers -- Starbucks, in particular -- is the notion of the "third place." That is, libraries want to create an atmosphere that is not home and not the office, but where people will want to spend a lot of their time. Rather than buy, they'll borrow -- and hopefully meet other people in the process. It's a community-center model as much as it is a library one, and it demands a focus on social programming, readings and events, as well as partnerships with arts and theater groups and other community organizations. It also requires new thinking about how libraries are designed. The best new library buildings don't devote the bulk of their floor plan to stacks. Rather, they offer lots of flexible spaces that work just as well for a poetry slam as they do for an exercise class for seniors.

One model of that thinking is in Salt Lake City. The new central library there, which opened five years ago, is now the city's second-most-visited tourist attraction in Utah. That's only partly because it's a noteworthy building designed by a famous architect, Moshe Safdie. What's more important is what goes on in and around the building. The library pushes cultural events, lectures and book readings, and turns its outdoor plaza into a front porch for downtown festivals celebrating everything from the arts to jazz to gay pride. Inside, a narrow glass atrium, known as the "urban room," not only houses a popular cafe but also a garden shop, comic-book store and other retailers whose leases require them to host their own events aimed at drawing yet more people to the library. "It's not about the building," says Nancy Tessman, the recently retired Salt Lake library director who was most responsible for getting it built. "It's about letting people explore and learn on their own terms."

When library experts talk about the future, it's remarkable how little the topic of books comes up. To be sure, libraries will carry books for as long as a critical mass of people wants to read them. The same is true of newspapers, magazines, CDs, DVDs and every other form of media that libraries have adopted over the years while following consumer tastes. Increasingly, however, libraries are talking about flipping the content equation around. That is, rather than thinking of themselves merely as a place to find content created by somebody else, the library will create content -- and give patrons the tools to create content of their own.

This can take a number of forms, but is usually online. Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, has converted the library's Web site, aadl.org, into a blog. You can still search the catalog, check library hours and find all the information you'd expect on a library's home page. But the main window changes frequently, highlighting upcoming events, online discussions and posts from Library Director Josie Parker. "It was a huge leap," Parker says of the overhaul, "but usage of our Web site jumped 200 percent right off the bat."

The library system in Hennepin County, Minnesota, has a different strategy for creating online content: It allows customers to make comments within the catalog, so that they can recommend titles they like to other patrons or pan ones they don't like. It's not much different than what customers around the world do on Amazon.com or Netflix, but Marilyn Turner, the Hennepin library's manager of Web services and training, says there's a hunger for people to make local connections around books, movies and music. "They could go to Amazon and share comments, but they choose to do it on their library's Web site," Turner says. "It's indicative of the fact that people see themselves as part of a smaller community, even though so much of what they do is in a global arena."

Digital Storytelling

In Charlotte, a national leader in this way of library thinking, creating content is a more tangible thing. It's Shalique Edmond recording a rap song at Studio i. It's Yony Cornejo, a high school freshman, using the library's tabletop animation equipment to make a short video of a stick figure dribbling a basketball. And it's a group of teenagers in the studio shooting a TV show on dating violence. In Charlotte's vision of content creation, access to all the latest computer and audio/visual gadgetry is important. So the library didn't stop at building Studio i. It also procured mobile animation stations that travel from one branch library to the next. The roadshow is like a 21st-century version of the bookmobile.

"Traditionally, people have come to the library to find things that fit into the stories of their lives," says Matt Gullett, the Charlotte library's director of emerging technologies. "When toddlers come in to learn how to read, it fits the story of how they are growing in life. When adults come in, and they love checking out mysteries or romance novels, it fits the story of those individuals. What we are trying to do now is to give people the ability to tell their own stories. We're equipping people to use digital cameras, sound equipment and software. It appears to be entertainment in some ways, but at the same time, they're learning how to interact with this world we're creating with digital media and the culture that results from that media. That's a big thing."

More than most libraries, Charlotte has been willing to follow every turn in the digital lives of young people. The Loft has its own page on MySpace. (It has more than 1,100 friends -- not bad for an agent of local government.) The Loft also podcasts readings and interviews with authors. And in addition to occupying the top floor of the children's library, the Loft has its own "island" in a version of Second Life that is reserved only for teenagers.

The purpose of all this is not merely to indulge the Google generation's digital addictions. It's to help teens navigate the online lives they'd be living anyway. Left to their own devices, teenagers have a way of doing dumb things on social networking sites, such as posting risque pictures of themselves. When they take pictures at the Loft and post them online, at least there's a librarian around to say what is and isn't appropriate. What's more, this generation needs help with Google itself. Not in terms of how to use a search engine, which they've been doing since they were old enough to use a computer, but in terms of understanding that when it comes to information, Google is not, in fact, the sole or incontrovertible authority.

The notion of devoting a portion of the library just for teens to explore these facets of themselves started in Los Angeles about a decade ago. In Charlotte, the Loft grew out of collaboration between the county library system and the Children's Theater of Charlotte, which together opened a combined facility, known as ImaginOn, three years ago. Aside from the teen-center librarians, only those ages 12 to 18 are allowed at the Loft. The idea is to provide a sanctuary from parents and teachers, where teens are free to make as much noise as they want or doodle on the glass walls with magic markers. None of the usual library rules apply in the Loft. In fact, there are only three rules: respect yourself, respect others and respect the space.

"A lot of people say we need to serve teenagers because they're future taxpayers," says Michele Gorman, who manages the Loft. "I think that's the worst way of thinking of teens. They deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy and we need to be inviting so we can pull them in. Adolescence is one of the craziest times in life. They're trying to figure out how to fit into society, and we need to give them a place to do that."

The teens hanging out at the Loft seem to appreciate this new thinking. But occasionally, amidst the cacophony of boisterous conversations and streams from YouTube, even they revert to some old library customs. Steps away from the computer where Shalique and Kyree are recording their track, four teenagers are up against a blue screen, practicing lines for a video they're about to shoot. Shalique's microphone is picking up the background noise, and it's stepping on his rapping. He shushes them. "Could you keep it down over there?"

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