Have you ever thought about bringing in comfy chairs and painting library walls in bright upbeat colors? Would that make a difference to a library in any substantial way?
Here is a library that said YES to this question. It is DOK-Library Concept Center, a Delft Public Library in Holland. Here are two videos about this cool library. The first video is a guided tour of the library by its director. The second video shows a Microsoft Multitouch Surface table with a Cultural Heritage Browser that is programmed to work with DOK library cards, so that library users can simply place their library card and view and browse the 25,000 images of their town from the city archive.
Multitouch Microsoft Surface: Cultural Heritage Browser
Despite dusty stacks, testy photocopiers, outdated computers, and boring-looking furniture, librarians love being at a library. Probably that is the reason why they became librarians. But maybe that is a problem. If there is one thing that librarians and the public share, if there is one thing that the staff of an academic library and the upper administration of a college/university, that would be the image of a library that is way too familiar and somewhat depressing at the same time.
The image of a library familiar to the public is an outdated building filled with books in which you are supposed to quietly study in uncomfortable chairs and often have to fight for computers if you didn’t bring your own laptop. If you are hungry, too bad. You are not allowed to eat inside a library. You better go out and eat something. Would you come back? Maybe or maybe not. But that is OK because you are at a library because you are supposed to do serious activities in the first place. Do study, research, explore ideas that will shake the world. But do so in a hungry, caffeine-deprived, muscle aching mode.
Of course, I am a bit exaggerating here. But I can confirm that even as a current librarian, I didn’t enjoy my time in libraries in my past as a college/graduate student frequenting libraries. And I am saying that the preconception of a library as a serious place reserved for reading, study, and research is actually shunning library users away.
If you have a choice between staying at MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital) and at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), where would you hang out? (Just make believe that you don’t have to pay $20 to go into MOMA for now.) If you have a choice between staying at a library and at a Starbucks, where would you hang out?
Potential answers are: “Whatever I need to get at a library, I will get them there and will go to Starbuck to do reading.” Or, “if I can get those things I need online, I will just go to Starbucks.” Or, “I won’t worry about going to a library at all, because it is not so much fun any way. Guess no reading for me.”
I loved and still love “the idea of being at a library.” Loving “the idea of being at a library” is, however, totally different from actually loving being at a library. It is the different between “library as a place I have to go for such and such” and “library as a place I love going to just to check out.”
I wonder why we aren’t paying more attention to making our libraries as a cool place to stay, to transforming them from a place to drop by for transaction to a preferred place to hang out for unique experience and environment that would encourage exploring knowledge and information. Of course, the model would be not Starbucks but something like DOK.
It is sad to see that academic libraries are less interested in this aspect of a library than public libraries. The fact that students hang out at libraries for exam and papers itself does not mean that a library is successful. An academic library will be successful when students want to come in even when there are no exams and papers due in a week. There lies the difference between a library being utilized and a library being cherished and valued.
Here is students’ plea for more comfy chairs, pillows and bean bags at the libraries of Western Washington University: http://lib206.lib.wwu.edu/14days/node/31
(No wonder why I have the fond memories of Robbins rather than of Widener; I had lots of coffee there in old comfy chairs with ottomans.)