how a reinvented dutch library set new attendance records and why is this still controversial?

This is a library! (Image found here.)
This article about the incredible Nieuwe Bibliotheek (New Library) in the Netherlands got me thinking about the current state of libraries - and library staff and library customers - and people's attitudes towards change.
Facing declining visitors and uncertainty about what to do about it, library administrators in the new town of Almere in the Netherlands did something extraordinary. They redesigned their libraries based on the changing needs and desires of library users and, in 2010, opened the Nieuwe Bibliotheek (New Library), a thriving community hub that looks more like a bookstore than a library.

Guided by patron surveys, administrators tossed out traditional methods of library organization, turning to retail design and merchandising for inspiration. They now group books by areas of interest, combining fiction and nonfiction; they display books face-out to catch the eye of browsers; and they train staff members in marketing and customer service techniques.

The library is also a Seats2meet (S2M) location where patrons are empowered to help one another in exchange for free, permanent, coworking space, and they utilize the S2M Serendipity Machine to connect library users in real-time. They also have a bustling cafe, an extensive events and music program, a gaming facility, a reading garden and more. The result? The New Library surpassed all expectation about usage with over 100,000 visitors in the first two months. It is now considered one of the most innovative libraries in the world.
Check out the article, and the photos of the community enjoying Nieuwe Bibliotheek's eye-popping spaces. Now imagine: there are library staff and customers who dislike and oppose this. It's not necessarily a generational divide, either. Many older librarians have embraced the new library ethos while some younger librarians gaze fondly back at some imagined golden age.

Although the library in which I work can only dream of the kind of innovation achieved by Nieuwe Bibliotheek, there are staff who complain about any step towards it. Generous book display tables, clear signage based on topic (as opposed to Dewey), innovative programs - they hate it all. Fortunately, those people are not in decision-making positions, and innovation moves ahead despite their grumbling. But the more I try to understand the reasoning of old-school librarians, the more I think they either don't understand the pressures facing libraries today, or they simply oppose change.

* * * *

Once upon a time - that is, for most of the modern era - public libraries were repositories of information that couldn't be found anywhere else. Most ordinary people did not have access to reference tools, and needed the library for all manner of research and learning. When I was a child, we would call the New York Public Library helpline with questions we couldn't find in our family's set of encyclopedias. Now, of course, we would simply go online for the answer. We've undergone a revolution in information access.

To many people, this digital revolution makes the public library irrelevant.

Of course, library supporters know this is not true. First of all, not everyone can afford the tools of home-based internet access, and public libraries are the only bulwark against that yawning chasm known as "the digital divide". Beyond that, there's quality and depth of research, something at least students still need.

And there's reading. I'm giving that its own line. Avid readers and families who understand the critical importance of reading cannot possibly purchase all the books they need!

Yet the mere existence of a quick way to find answers to simple questions leads many people to believe libraries are irrelevant. More importantly for libraries, powerful interests that don't value public services and would prefer to see everything for-profit and privatized can use the digital revolution as a convenient smokescreen to slash funding.

* * * *

In the current era, public libraries have reinvented themselves in order to remain relevant to their communities. As often happens, change originally borne out of survival turns out to be a very positive development.

My own library is alive with this kind of activity - family storytimes, resume help, language learning, book clubs, movie screenings, you name it. The most recent trend, makerspaces in libraries, turns the library into a place where people learn new skills and create things, using tools and resources normally unavailable to them. (Did I tell you I'm now on the Maker Mississauga committee? More in a future post.) The library also provides free leisure options. Some people find it quaint and outdated, but thousands of people borrow CDs, DVDs, and video games.

* * * *

Not all change is good, of course. Change needs direction and purpose. It needs to add value for customers and make economic sense for the investment of public funds. But change is life. In the case of the public library, it's change or die. Healthy innovation is the only alternative.


John F said...

That is a very cool library! I'm all for reinventing libraries in order to keep them relevant, and to get patrons in.

You might be interested in an example closer to home. The new Halifax Central Library will be opening this fall. Here is a virtual tour.

laura k said...

Thanks, John. I've heard great things about the new Halifax Library.

Here's a link to the library website. The tour link works. :)

laura k said...

The design is similar to the new (remodeled, rebuilt) branches in Mississauga: Lakeview, Port Credit, for example. But bigger and more impressive, as befits a central library! Really nice.

deang said...

Those are cool libraries! I doubt anybody's opposed to change in general, though. Usually, people are opposed to changes they don't see as beneficial, and that varies with opinion. But maybe you've seen evidence that some library employees and users are gut-level resistant to change of any kind.

laura k said...

Usually, people are opposed to changes they don't see as beneficial, and that varies with opinion. But maybe you've seen evidence that some library employees and users are gut-level resistant to change of any kind.

In my experience in several different work environments, many people hate change. They respond to change with fear, anxiety, anger, general freaking out, and they'll do anything possible to avoid adapting and adjusting to the change.

The library seems to be full of people like this, who hate and are extremely uncomfortable with change of any type. A big part of leadership at the library is helping other staff adjust and adapt.

johngoldfine said...

as opposed to Dewey

Whew, those are dark dark people....

laura k said...

Whew, those are dark dark people....


impudent strumpet said...

I don't know if this is a small enough question for a comment or if it demands another blog post, but one thing I've been wondering when I read about many of the different library programs you've been doing is: how do you figure out what kinds of programs people will enjoy or appreciate?

As a rather traditional library user (i.e. I just swoop in to get books from time to time and don't really need anything else apart from the occasional bit of wifi) it would never have occurred to me that there's be a market for any of this stuff. If you asked me "Does this sound like a good idea?" my response would be "I don't see the point."

And this all came to mind in response to this specific post because it occurred to me that the vast majority of people who work in libraries would be content with the status quo of libraries, at least at the time they started working there. If you think the library is irrelevant in its current state, you aren't going to make it your career. So library employees are intrinsically not inclined to see anything wrong with the current state of the library. (Or, if they are, they'd be inclined to want to change in the direction of the state of the library when they joined.)

So how do you all get around this and figure out what would make non-library people happy?

laura k said...

Hey, great questions. I'll answer here but maybe I'll do a separate post about it, too.

We find out what people want mostly by offering programs and seeing what works. Many program ideas for adults, especially at small branch libraries, are cancelled because of low registration or not repeated because of low attendance.

There are also teen advisory groups and senior advisory groups that come to the library to discuss and plan events for those audiences. In Ontario the teens get volunteer hours for this.

Programs for children, teens, and older adults (seniors) are usually very well attended, and it's easy to see we're filling a need or at least enriching lives.

I know exactly what you mean about "I don't see the point". My partner is that kind of library user. He comes in to get books and if it weren't for me I don't think he'd even be aware that library programs existed. But we see customers all day long who are amazed and thrilled at all the programs we offer - mostly newcomers to Canada, and mostly parents. (The older adult programs are very popular, but we do outreach to retirement and nursing homes to reach those audiences.)

Since one of the library's most important functions right now is providing free internet access and study space, we are always trying to offer more to that audience. Come for the internet, stay for a program - or at least learn about a program and come back for it.

laura k said...

Also, even old-guard library staff has known the library was in trouble if it didn't find new ways of demonstrating relevance to the community. No one needs the library to answer simple internet-answerable questions anymore, so use dropped sharply. Ebooks (and personal devices to read them on) has caused a huge drop in circulation in many places.

At the same time, people who can't afford internet at home need the library more than ever. But people who make decisions about public services aren't inclined to fund libraries solely for people who can't afford internet access.

Even the most entrenched, traditional library workers know this, and I assume they all want to preserve libraries and their own jobs. Many of my older collegaues remember huge lineups at the reference desk, three staff members being busy all the time. Now that same desk is staffed by two people and sometimes you could get away with one.

So everyone could see the library (and potentially their jobs) dwindling away.

But being part of the change is something else. Some people embrace the changes and love the new library ethic, but many others find the whole thing scary and sad, even though they recognize it's necessary.