How often do librarians find themselves trying to explain that the library’s mission is not about books but about information? This public misunderstanding about what we are doing and why leads to a community misconception of what we should be doing in the future. The reality is that we as librarians make the same mistake all the time. We know intellectually that informational flow and access are our main missions, but our decisions and our hearts often put the focus on books. Books, in many cases, remain by far the best delivery vehicle for information, but there are many subject areas where other informational vehicles would be more effective, even if implementing those vehicles might mean less money spent on books. (This is the real issue we face: most of us have no problem spending money on programs, AV, special devices, and other things as long as we aren’t cutting our book budget to make them happen.)
Maker spaces make info
One current movement that has expanded the idea of what libraries can do to improve information dissemination is inspired by Maker culture. This idea of helping in the creation and dissemination of information through hands-on production has had libraries nationwide constructing Maker spaces of their own. Libraries are looking at information as more than just a one-way street from creators to consumers. Maker culture not only builds a dynamic learning environment and helps to grow community through the library but also allows for unique production of local information. This info wouldn’t exist otherwise and helps encourage others to innovate, as well as informally instructs them in how they might do so. Information doesn’t just travel in one direction as it has so often in the past. It now has much greater potential for multidirectional flow. Seen in this light, it is clear that Maker spaces fit into the core mission of the library, as long as we embrace flows of information that are contained and carried in vehicles other than books.
Maker spaces are only scratching the surface of the deeper possibilities waiting for those willing to dive even deeper into the untapped possibilities. The most successful projects have given whole floors to these new environments, which helps to build communities and aids staff in providing better service. The generation of information is only one aspect of the puzzle.
Are magnet libraries next?
Taking the concepts further and examining how information flow is best facilitated, you could imagine a performing arts library with soundproof practice booths and networked practice tutorials, plus instruments for check out during practice sessions or even to take home. You could envision several recording studios for the making of music and video projects. You could imagine practice rooms for bands, small dance groups, theater, and more. You could see a theater that allowed artists in your community access to performance space just as so many people in our communities currently use our meeting spaces. You can dream up rows and rows of CDs and LPs with an incredible selection of popular and important artists of today and yesterday. You could see patrons chatting over the new Animal Collective album and others lounging around on couches strumming guitars or jamming on banjos. The whole library would have nothing but performing arts materials, and everyone there would be interested in the performing arts.
It’s the combination of things
Many of these things are already in libraries, but nowhere do you find all of them combined in one location designated just for that use. The potential for community building is huge. The library would be facilitating the three major ways of interacting with arts information: consumption, learning, and performance. The performing arts is just one example; you could also envision a library for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and with 3-D printers, high-powered microscopes, simple labs for experiments and programs, books, and much more. When you start to look beyond the normal parameters we place around information and consider how it is actually used throughout our communities, the possibilities are enormous. These specialized edifices of informational flow would also make for great partnership and grant opportunities. They will also appeal to large groups of people who currently have little interest in libraries because they deal with information in a way that is different from what the library has traditionally offered.
The library I have been talking about does not exist, but I think it will eventually. There will still be a need in every community for the one-stop shopping provided by almost every library today, but there will also be room for these specialized branches in urban and suburban systems. It is just a matter of time before someone works with what is going on in Maker spaces in libraries and takes it to that next level. I can’t wait.