Are public libraries are a thing of the past, or do they still hold relevance in the increasingly digital world?
City librarians Vickery Bowles of Toronto and Kelli Woo-Shue of Halifax both think it’s the latter.
In response to evolution of technology, public libraries have adapted to the digital times, revamping their brick-and-mortar locations to serve the community in new and innovative ways.
"Times are changing but digital technology has further complimented and enriched the way we consume information," Bowles said.
While libraries serve a much greater purpose, the traditional library model of an academic institution loaning books and media is quickly adapting to digital society. "Technology has become an essential part of the public library service," Bowles said.
Since the opening of their 99th and 100th branches in the past two years, the Toronto Public Library system has seen a dramatic increase in visitors. Just last year, more than 18 million visits were made throughout the branches and the library’s website received a soaring 26 million hits. That’s one important way libraries are reaching out and engaging the community – through the virtual services, Bowles said.
While the library is and always will be about accessing information, the way we consume it will change. So the challenge becomes, if the access to information is primarily online, what can a library offer that furthers its mission but also attracts people to visit the physical location?
"It's not only about consuming content," said Bowles. "Increasingly it’s about creating content and things."
Digital innovation hubs are centres within libraries that offer access to technology that may otherwise be too cost-prohibitive or too complex for a person to have access to otherwise. They have changed the way libraries provide services to customers.
"Our digital innovation hubs at our two new branches all have 3D printers and green screens, as well as digital information sessions" Bowles said. The digital information sessions offered assist those who are less technologically-savvy or who are looking to improve their skills, teaching them new technology and software including computer coding and video editing.
Self publishing is another innovation that libraries are offering to draw people in. The Windsor Public Library was the first public library in Canada to install a self-publishing machine. Since 2012, the machine has produced 10,699 paperbacks and has inspired other libraries to offer the same service.
Toronto Reference Library and the Halifax Central Library’s publishing machines allow people to produce their own books. Whether the books are memoirs, short story collections or cookbooks, Bowles says their machine allows patrons to create paperback versions of their work.
"It's like a cross between a dot matrix printer and a glue gun,” Bowles said of how the machine operates.
“It's not hugely exciting [to watch] but you can see the possibilities and the fascination with the kinds of things that the printer can produce," said Woo-Shue of Halifax’s machine. "I've even seen complete strangers meet in the lab around [it] talking about ideas and sharing contact information."
These new innovations are allowing people the chance to meet and connect, she adds.
Gateways to cultural opportunities
Public libraries serve everyone in the community, especially those experiencing tough economic times, where free access to technology and information is a luxury that is tough to afford. The refocus of programming by many public libraries across Canada now allows for a broader range of literary and cultural activities, which also opens the doors for new partnerships.
Through their partnership programs, the Toronto Public Libraries has served over half a million people in the community in the past decade. One example is the Sunlife Museum and Arts Program pass, where families get a chance to visit any of Toronto's top cultural institutions for free.
"Much like you would borrow a book, you can borrow a pass for your family from your local library" said Bowles.
Public libraries still hold traditional programs, like hosting discussions between authors and bookworms, as well as some more unconventional events like live concerts.
"In 2006 we started a program called Make Some Noise,” explained Bowles. “Every year we have concerts in the library and we bring local musicians. We have lots of local bands, some from the Toronto indie music scene. It's been a great way to get people to come in to the library who might not normally think of coming in.
“People really like the juxtaposition of coming into a library to hear a rock concert where traditionally they'd think of it as a quiet place."
Re-inventing libraries through the transformation of the physical space
"Innovative designs draw people to the physical space of the library" said Woo-Shue.
Dubbed as one of the world's most visually striking libraries in the world, the Halifax Central Library has aimed to be a leader in applying green technologies and environmentally-conscious designs to their building.
The stunning $55 million glass library embodies futuristic and unique modern designs; said to resemble a stack of books, the building offers state-of-the-art features to the community including a 300-seat theater, two cafes, gaming stations, space for adult literacy, multiple boardrooms for business use and an entire floor dedicated to youth – not to mention the outdoor patios with panoramic views of the downtown core.
The future of libraries
Outside of Canada, modern libraries are capturing the attention of locals, too.
In North Carolina, the James Hunt Jr. Library has taken a new and futuristic approach: it is home to "bookbot," a robotic book storage system which carries 1.5 million volumes of books and other media in 18,000 bins, making it easily accessible for people to find books.
When a book is requested through the libraries' website, the robotic arms go between the shelves, locate the correct book and pull it from the shelf.
Just a few years ago, the Chattanooga Library in Tennessee dedicated its entire fourth floor (14,000 square feet of former storage space) to a "beta floor," where people have full access to equipment and services like laser cutters, 3D printers, sewing machines and computer coding classes.
Although the fate of libraries remains in flux, the need for free access to information and services will remain, as will the need to allow all members of a community to participate in daily community life.
"Having access to e-resources and e-books and the user education programs that we offer, helps build information literacy skills that are so important in today’s world,” said Bowles. “As libraries we really help to bridge the digital divide and provide access to the technology that people need."