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.

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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.

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