Arlington Heights Public Library

The Arlington Heights Public Library has added a new space designated for teens called The Hub. The Chicago Public Library is also considering new ways to use space. (Arlington Heights Memorial Library, Handout)

For centuries, the defining role of the library has been as a repository of books. Now, in the 21st century, the library faces perhaps its most momentous challenge: Americans are moving away increasingly from the printed page to digital screens for information and communication.

Library leaders nationwide are adapting to this shift by reimagining the library as an engaged community center. The role of librarians is being re-branded to reflect their expertise as content curators and trusted navigators in an ever-expanding ocean of information — in whatever format it may exist.


This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.


Core issues — including technology integration, new services, institutional identity and right-sizing collections (consider the flap over New York Public Library’s proposed redesign) — are under active review. Last month, the American Library Association announced it had received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to establish a Center for the Future of Libraries.

What will the nation’s 9,000 public libraries be like in 2020 and beyond? Starting this summer, when the ALA hosted its annual conference here in Chicago — its theme was “Transforming Libraries, Ourselves” — Printers Row Journal began examining this question. Visits to several new and recently renovated Chicagoland libraries, reports from other cities, and interviews with library directors offer clues.

Space

Walk into Arlington Heights Memorial Library, whose renovations were completed this year, and you'll see an expansive, open space. Several dividing walls have been removed. One section of the library, Marketplace, mimics a supermarket aisle, with 20,000 books, DVDs and music CDs. Books are divided by category — Cookbooks, Health, Jobs & Money and Trending — and shelved with covers, rather than spines, facing out.

The attractive display is so popular, reports library executive director Jason Kuhl, that although it occupies only 10 percent of floor space, Marketplace accounts for more than one-quarter of the library's 2.6 million circulation. "It's much easier to find a cookbook here than under its 641.5 (Dewey Decimal System) classification," Kuhl says.

This is just one example of how libraries have begun to rethink library design. Striking architecture — LEED-certified, energy efficient with green roofs — and an expanded portfolio of practices that broaden the library's community impact are central. For cities without the funds to build new libraries from scratch, a promising solution lies in repurposing abandoned and vacant commercial properties. The city of McAllen, Texas, purchased a vacant 123,000-square-foot former Walmart that MSR, a Minneapolis architectural firm, transformed into a new main library.

In existing libraries, former storage areas and the elimination of stacks of reference books and magazine back issues have enabled architects to give old spaces new life. A study of the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicated that 59 percent of library users want more comfortable reading areas. Glenview Public Library and Arlington Heights Memorial Library both feature living room-like spaces with plush chairs and fireplaces.

Another major trend in library design, digital studios, began as a way to entice a younger, digitally savvy audience. Now, library directors report, adults are flocking to them to convert old photographs and vinyl discs to digital formats and to create podcasts. Local businesses are using studios to make marketing videos.

Traditionally, libraries have served two populations: young children and adults. Teenagers were a lost demographic.

"That's a group that libraries tend to lose, especially when they turn 16," says Kuhl. "It's a group that wants to create their own space, which is one thing that was keeping them from the library. They never felt welcome."

In addition to digital studios, libraries nationwide have begun to offer dedicated, tech-rich teen spaces. Arlington's library has The Hub, a large glassed-in room where teens study in groups, play video games or design products with a 3-D printer. The Vortex is Bolingbrook's similar space in the Fountaindale Public Library. Staff at both sites report the spaces are packed every afternoon after school.

The New York Public Library opened its first full-floor dedicated teen space in a branch last year. The design, which won a 2013 American Institute of Architects/American Library Association Building Award, converted 4,400 square feet of unused space into a colorful environment with bleacher-style seating, akin to what project architect Lyn Rice calls "a clubhouse where teens can be themselves and a little louder."

The Chicago Public Library has its YouMedia teen showcase at Harold Washington Library Center and four branches. Library Commissioner Brian Bannon said YouMedia will debut in six additional branches next year along with 12 roving pop-up venues around the city.

Chicago's Harold Washington Library had the misfortune to open in 1991, just before the start of the digital era. The floor plan thus follows a traditional spatial arrangement for furnishings, reading areas and book display. Bannon said a spatial study is underway to introduce "some experiments" — including the newly installed Innovation Lab, which features a 3-D printer — and to create a more contemporary environment.

"We are looking at ways in which to align our services with what our patrons need," he says.

Library staff are working with IDEO, a "human-centered" design practice, to update the building's functional program. This fall, staff held the Library Redesign Challenge, a pop-up display in the lobby that asked patrons what changes they'd like to see. Among user suggestions were better Wi-Fi, lounge areas with couches, more enclosed spaces and "nooks everywhere with good lamps."

Services