Going Beyond Books: New Jersey’s Libraries Need a 21st Century Transformation

In today’s New York Times, there’s a very interesting article concerning the latest cultural, informational and structural changes going on at Boston’s Public Library. The article tells a fascinating story – one that many New Jerseyans are not aware of – of a connection between the increasing viability of today’s libraries and their willingness to change. Libraries are still places for information, no doubt, but libraries have also become places for Americans – and particularly teens and younger kids – to spread out, collaborate, create and get online.

But it’s not just happening at Boston’s long-cherished public library. Even in the most ‘sacred’ of public libraries, that being the marble anchor that is the New York Public Library’s Midtown Manhattan behemoth, books are being placed into (readily accessible) storage to make way for new, airy public spaces. Transparent spaces, technologically friendly, these new “Connective Workzones” are more like giant coffeehouses than the traditional book-lined libraries they are supplementing – and replacing. And say what you want, fellow bibliophiles, about your love of the traditional stuffy library; Americans are voting with their feet and are patronizing these transformed institutions in record numbers. At Boston’s library alone, yearly visits are up by 500,000.

So the need is there and it’s being demonstrated. The “Age of the Internet,” once purported to doom all libraries, has in fact proven to be their savior. There are so many reasons today to visit, simply because we’re not only living in an information age, we have an information culture.

One of the more local institutions that has firmly recognized the library’s new position in the public firmament is the Princeton Public Library. Housed in a beautiful, modern and remarkably transparent structure, it contains many, many books but also several community meeting rooms and even its own coffeehouse. It’s busy staff keeps up a steady supply of events in the form of speakers, roundtable discussions, book groups and films. And yes, it has an excellent Wi-Fi system and a wireless cloud that stretches out around the block and into adjacent public plazas and gathering places.

Perhaps we’re seeing something more at work here. Starbucks has long credited its national success with its being a “third place,” between work/school and home; a place where community members can sit down, talk in a neutral and friendly location, study and enjoy some delicious coffee. Perhaps “the people” are now declaring their need for a much more viable, publicly supported and maintained ‘third place,’ with their intense use of these transformed libraries. I think we’re on to something with this new design that can revitalize funding and use of all of our public libraries. We need to follow Boston and Princeton here and give the people what they want: a library that is the community’s “Connected Living Room.”

Before I propose to the Legislature that it fund a total transformation of the state’s library and local libraries, or create some kind of grant program, we need a study. Pehaps amongst its zillions of bills it could fund an inexpensive study to see how library attendance figures differ at the “traditional” libraries versus these new “community living room” institutions. My suspicion is that once the legislature gets the real numbers, it can start to make some real changes. We should never get rid of the books – heavens no! But perhaps we need to make more room for community creativity, collaboration, connectivity and events.

Just an idea…

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