Should you be able to order a cappuccino while waiting for a librarian to download the latest bestseller onto your smartphone so you can read it in time for the next “community book club” meeting? Should you be able to sew some new clothes or fix your car at the library?
How about collaborating with a business partner in San Francisco, then using a 3-D printer to create a prototype? Or writing a song and hearing your band play it back?
All of these things are being done in American libraries. It’s how one of our most venerated and beloved institutions is reinventing itself, reaching into the cloud to disseminate knowledge but still allowing millions of Americans to get their hands on tools and books while they share and shape what they want and need to know.
Stanislaus County has a watershed moment at hand. Vanessa Czopek is retiring as library director and her replacement likely will be hired in the next few weeks. Now’s the time to determine what we want and need from our 13 libraries, funded by an eighth-percent sales tax that provides 90 percent of the library’s $9.3 million budget.
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Czopek, her staff and the library foundation have done a fine job establishing 21st century libraries with a host of modern services. A five-year plan in 2011 set out excellent goals – connecting residents to the online world, providing safe facilities, improving literacy and finding reliable information. But in an information-based society, goals are moving targets. Priorities shift. To remain vital, institutions must be quick on their feet.
The new librarian will want to build on those established priorities, but this is an excellent opportunity adjust them or set new ones. We shouldn’t waste it.
Barbara Stripling is the president of the American Library Association and teaches library practice at Syracuse University in New York. “Libraries,” she says, “are on the cusp of greatness.” Unfortunately, libraries that refuse to change are on the cusp of obsolescence.
Without the sales tax, it is clear our libraries would cease to exist at least as we know them. They remain vibrant, vital places and community resources, but only so long as they are considered indispensable.
And they can become even more than they are now.
“There’s a huge movement for putting in ‘makers spaces,’
” said Stripling. “I just visited one that had sewing machines and they provided material and instruction.” Another, she said, offered classes in fixing your car. Yet another offers 3-D printers. Those libraries, said Stripling, provide “an opportunity to connect with groups and (with) people who have expertise in all these things.”
She said some libraries are small-business incubators, and she was thrilled to learn of how young brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo went to the Modesto library to learn about wine production.
Libraries must also serve traditional functions, balancing print and digital collections and, more importantly, guaranteeing “equitable access” for all users.
Matching staff to demand is perhaps the most difficult challenge. With Google at everyone’s fingertips, modern libraries do less research than teaching how to discern the value of what you find – figuring out if what your search turns up is “valid and accurate” or just Internet litter.
Stripling said modern librarians are extremely visible in their communities, going out rather than waiting for residents to come in. “That’s the biggest transformation,” said Stripling. “What you need are people who are involved in the community, who reach out, who host and facilitate forums; who bring in speakers to facilitate discussions on community issues.”
We should want to visit our libraries often. Taking our kids, collaborating on projects, laughing with friends and debating pertinent issues. If they’re not, then the next time that tax comes up (in 2018) it might have a harder time getting passed. And if it doesn’t pass, then we would likely lose our libraries. We can’t imagine a world without them.
But we can imagine being able to order up a nice cappuccino when we walk through the door of a modern library.