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Libraries look beyond the shelves

See the robotic arm in action at the Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago.
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Updated: July 3, 2013 6:24AM



Jeff Weisensel doesn’t have a job, not for the past 14 months anyway, since Kraft Foods restructured him out the door after 22 years.

But he does have a library — the $28 million Glenview Public Library, opened in 2011 — whose inviting lobby is part art gallery, part cafeteria — patrons are welcome to eat and drink there ­­— and part social center. No shushing librarian with an index finger to her pursed lips and her glasses on a chain here; instead, a sign on the wall encourages talking.

“Just hanging out, searching for a job, getting away from the house,” he said, pausing from chatting with a friend who came to the library to give his nanny space.

Times are changing in America, and if you want to see an institution trying to change with them, using every technological and conceptual tool it can, look no further than your local public library.

“It is a most exciting time for libraries,” said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association. “Books are still important, but libraries are also delivering content and experiences to their communities in new, very different and exciting ways.”

True, there aren’t more of them. New library buildings lag behind population growth. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, according to the library association, the construction of new libraries remained flat while population increased 10 percent.

The Chicago Public Library is mostly replacing old facilities; its new Edgewater branch, replacing a much smaller, older facility, opens June 22. Though it is opening a new branch in August.

Typically, it is existing libraries that are jogging to keep up with the times. Checking out ebooks is old news; though a significant number of publishers still resist allowing libraries to offer ebooks to their patrons, that opposition is weakening.

The latest reimagining of the library is as community center and business hub.

Arlington Heights Memorial Library just finished a $2.8 million renovation, expanding from four study rooms to 14, the biggest large enough for board meetings. One local nonprofit convenes its board there.

“We were having to turn people away,” said Jason Kuhl, executive director of the library. “They were originally study rooms, but what we were finding, there were more businesspeople coming in and using them.”

Libraries are shifting from places where you look up facts to places where you learn skills.

“We’ve really redesigned our space for the way the community uses the library,” said Deb Whisler, Arlington Heights’ director of communications and marketing. “Reference questions have dropped — we can all Google things on our phones — but what has increased are tech instructions. We have 40 to 60 tech classes, in Pinterest, in Twitter. We have a digital studio with all kinds of video equipment; businesses make their videos here.”

That’s happening across the country.

“One of the most interesting purposes of the library today is to be a place where people can go to learn new technology,” Sullivan said.

When Glenview built its new library, the public room moved from the basement to right off the entrance and nearly doubled in capacity, from 90 to 160 people.

“The library really is the anchor of downtown Glenview,” said Jennifer Black, communications director. “It’s a library, in its essence, but it’s also a community center and a cultural center. We do so much programming for all ages: adults, teens kids seniors. ... Books are still our primary business — books and ebooks now — but libraries have evolved into very special community resources.”

During the day, a library has three primary types of patrons: mothers with preschoolers, retirees and people doing their jobs or seeking employment.

“Like all libraries, it’s been a haven in this economy,” Black said. “For people out of work, you feel you have a place to go, to do research, write resumes, look for jobs.”

That’s nothing new. What is a more recent development is people with jobs doing those jobs at the library.

“Small businesses that can’t afford offices anymore use our study rooms,” she said. “We get a lot of journalists.”

Another big push for libraries has been in youth services, trying to offer cool spaces for kids to hang out, play games, and, occasionally, study.

The Chicago Public Library started its YOUmedia program three years ago.

“It challenges your assumptions about what a library ought to look like [with] a crowd of kids, playing video games, eating lunch,” said Brian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. “But it’s a fully engaged, interactive learning environment that connects kids through their interests to opportunities to learn.”

For instance, at Arlington Heights, students do more than use electronic devices; they build them, mastering electrical circuitry and soldering.

One concept big in libraries is referred to as the “maker culture.” “In its simplest form, there has been a resurgence in the concept of do-it-yourself, such as making jewelry, buttons or crafts,” Bannon said. “Many of us believe this is a new area of emphasis for our country, particularly as we look at innovation and invention.”

Toward that end, the Harold Washington Library in July is opening the Innovation Lab, an experimental space that will include a variety of tools, from laser cutters to a $2,000 MakerBot Replicator 3-D printer that can create solid objects using liquid plastic.

Innovation can involve putting public libraries in unexpected settings — in August, the CPL opens its 80th branch on the campus of Back of the Yards High School — the idea being that the public and students will use the facility.

Some of the improvements are purely technological. Just as libraries went from tracking books with cards tucked into pockets to scannable bar codes, they are shifting to radio-frequency identification chips that don’t have to be scanned at all. A stack of books can be checked out all at once by setting them on an electronic pad.

“We switched over our whole collection, 300,000 items,” said Jim Deiters, director of Oak Lawn Public Library. Not only does RFID speed checkout and allow patrons to check out their own books, but it allows them to get rid of cumbersome and expensive plastic security cases for CDs and DVDs because the RFID can be affixed directly to the discs.

Perhaps the most impressive piece of new library technology is found in the basement of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago. There, 1.5 million books are stored tightly in stainless steel bins (or, for oversize books, shelving units) stacked five stories high, and five 50-foot-tall industrial robots race along tracks, grabbing the boxes and whisking them up to the Reading Room, a dramatic space of truncated columns (that cleverly hide air exchange outlets) under a soaring glass roof designed by Helmut Jahn. The system allows seven times more books to be stored than could in the same space open stacks. The library has room for 1.9 million additional volumes and is busily digitalizing rare archival material to make it available to the world online.

“The future is very bright,” said Judith Nadler, director and university librarian.

The neighboring Joseph Regenstein Library has a staffed tech help center, the “Techb@r,” that not only has experts available to consult on electronic issues, but a range of equipment ­— iPads, laptops, cables, cameras — students can check out.

The bottom line is that libraries are listening and trying to give their communities what they want in ways big and small. For instance, because so many patrons are in book clubs, which descend, locust-like, looking for multiple copies of hot books, Glenview offers “Book Club in a Bag,” 12 copies of the same popular title, plus a discussion guide, ready to go in a canvas carry-all.

Bannon points out that libraries are just doing what they have always done: adapting to new technology, whether by offering records and videotapes decades ago, or ebooks and computer terminals now. The Chicago Public Library offers 2,500 public computer terminals, which is the most available free in the city.

“The role of public libraries is creating spaces that connect people to information and ideas,” Bannon said. “It’s still a really powerful message and mission we need to continue.”

Another way to look at it is that libraries have always been the place where children went to get help with their homework, and where once that might have been making a shoebox diorama about the Civil War, now it is often something more sophisticated.

“Fourth-graders have to turn in videos,” said Kuhl, explaining the genesis of Arlington Heights’ production space, The Studio, with its three editing suites where patrons record videos, music and podcasts. “We have parents coming in saying, ‘Our elementary-school kid has to make a video. We don’t have tools, don’t have knowledge.’ The library steps in and helps just as they’ve always done. If you ask, ‘Hey, is this the role of the library?’ Yes! Libraries are still doing what they’ve always done, we’re just doing it in a new way with new technology for new times.”



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