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Are libraries the new town square?

Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities, thinks so. PPS recently listed its “10 Trends Shaping the Future of Our Communities.” Number five on the list is “Libraries emerge as new town squares.”

I believe that PPS may be on to something. Have you been to your local public library lately?

I go to quite a few libraries on my booksigning tours, and from what I’ve seen lately these paragons of information are in the midst of considerable change, much of which is driven by technology and more involvement in the community. Ask any librarian if there is an increased demand for web-connected computers, community rooms, music, meeting rooms and even coffee bars.

A town square is by definition a place, more specifically a place for community gatherings. Historically, it was the place that had an open area and was located in the middle of town. It was a “square” because of the borders around it. Usually these borders were retail stores. People gathered in the town square for all types of events, from fairs to political gatherings. If we examine the things that went on in the town squares of the past, we see that many of them are occurring in today’s libraries. For example, many elected officials hold constituent meetings, arts and crafts demonstrations are held and lectures and forums of all kinds are held in the library.

Librarians whom I’ve talked to recently tell me there is a weekday rhythm in their facilities. In the mornings, it is not uncommon to see jobseekers come in to use the Internet and use online job search sites to look for jobs and new careers. Later, business and professional people will come in for online and shelf research. Then there are the senior citizens who come in for programs in the community room and may use the Internet to communicate with family members. In the middle of the afternoon, it is the wave of students who are just getting out of school. I should interject here that one issue that many libraries face is what to do with parents who are using the library as a babysitter, but that’s another story. The evenings are filled with high school and college students doing their homework and research projects.

The 2009 edition of the Horizon Report, collaboration between the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, identifies six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use in learning-focused organizations, i.e. libraries, within five years. These so-called technologies to watch are:

• Mobiles, such as iPhones and similar devices, which are doing many things once solely done by computers;

• Cloud computing, which is essentially a way to store information in large “data farms” on the Internet;

• Geo-everything, the ability of many devices to record the precise location of the user and code it into an application;

• The personal web, a collection of technologies that allow individuals to personalize their Internet experience;

• Semantic-aware applications, which mean that information is coded based on its context, such as whether the term “terminal” refers to an airport or a medical condition; and

• Smart objects, which refers to devices that are able to learn things about themselves.

Now that I have impressed or confused you with the technology talk, allow me to put things in perspective and come back down to earth. Recently, I was in a library in a rather small town. Among the many offerings and activities available to the public was something billed as “Hobby in the Lobby,” a weekly activity near the main entrance to the library in which there were discussions and demonstrations about personal hobbies. Here’s a list of the hobbies for the next two months:

“Cupcake Decorating”

“Decorative Pens”

“Painting with Acrylics”

“Pillow-Making”

“Quilting”

“Poetry Reading”

“Tips on Spring Potting”

“African Hair Braiding & Styles”

That same library had a wide variety of other activities. Every Monday there is “Lunch at the Library,” which features a lunch provided by the library and a lecture by an author. There are adult GED preparation classes that meet for five hours every Monday-Thursday. Once a week there is a Humanities Discussion Group meeting, featuring a variety of discussion subjects related to the history of the community. And let us not forget “The Book Bunch,” which meet on Wednesdays to discuss a book of interest to its members. Talk about the library being involved in the community.

In summary, libraries have always provided a resource center for their communities, but many of them are now pushing to turn their libraries into civic centers that foster a sense of community and offer a unique gathering place. Many librarians now envision their facilities as both virtual and literal town squares for their neighborhoods and downtowns.

Phil Hardwick is Coordinator of Capacity Development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.

About Phil Hardwick

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