Starting in 2017, 15 small and rural public libraries from across the United States will participate in the Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces project, an 18-month training program aimed at reimagining and reconfiguring libraries to support active learning, foster social connections, and be places of continued discovery. The project will lead participating libraries through four stages of training, help them to develop an online cohort, and connect their work to the profession at large. Led by a project team of WebJunction, a program of OCLC Research, the project is funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in partnership with the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL). Participating libraries will receive $5,000 toward their space redesigns.
The libraries were chosen from a pool of over 100 applicants and represent communities as small as 1,000 residents and as large as 21,000. They represent nearly every region in the United States, but all have a few things in common. Funders were looking for applicants who expressed an established understanding of the challenges and strengths in their community, demonstrated leadership, and expressed a vision that indicated an open-minded approach to developing a smart space.
“We recognize that there are many small and rural libraries doing outstanding work,” said Tim Carrigan, senior program officer at the IMLS Office of Library Services. But according to the 2014 ALA Digital Inclusion survey, less than 15 percent have the ability to undergo significant renovations of their spaces, compared to 33 percent of medium and large-sized libraries. According to Betha Gutsche, program manager at OCLC, these libraries will have a lot to teach and share with each other and the profession.
“Small and rural libraries are often incubators for innovation because of necessity,” Gutsche told LJ. They often rethink and repurpose their spaces in compelling and adaptive ways, rather than rely on large and often expensive renovation projects.
The Smart Spaces project itself is designed to be approached iteratively, based on the unique needs of the libraries involved. The WebJunction team plans to work collaboratively with the libraries to ensure the learning experiences are applicable to each community’s context. To achieve this, ASRL and the WebJunction team are collaboratively identifying appropriate partners to lead each phase of training.
The first phase, organized with participation from the Project for Public Spaces, will focus on ensuring library staff authentically engage with community members to understand their needs from an inclusive and equitable perspective. Librarians and staff will be introduced to the concepts of human-centered design, placemaking, and community engagement. Carrigan and Gutsche are both excited to partner with ASRL, to ensure the training doesn’t simply support theory but also application. According to Carrigan, by focusing first on community needs, “libraries will be able to quickly adapt to evolving communities in support of lifelong learning.” Lisa Martin, a children’s librarian at Madison Public Library (MPL) in Madison, SD, agrees. She and director Nancy Sabbe told LJ they are excited to be “stepping off into the unknown” with this program and including their staff and community in the journey.
Melanie Morgan is the director of the MPL county system, whose Hot Springs branch will participate in the program. Her vision for the branch—situated on the Appalachian Trail—is for it to become a community hub and a place where people walking by can see its vibrancy as a center for learning and discovery. Morgan imagines spaces that encourage workforce development and personal growth, and learning stations focused on exposing young learners, visitors, and artists alike to principles of environmental sustainability and biodiversity or conservancy. She wants to offer “something fresh” in the library so that when visitors or patrons leave, they ask “what’s going to be there next?”
Well Connected Communities
“Rural libraries are often well connected with citizens in compelling ways,” said Carrigan. At the Bertha Voyer Memorial Library in Honey Grove, TX, “we poll people a lot…and our people are not afraid to give feedback,” director Pattie Mayfield told LJ. The ranching community of about 16,000 uses its library for a variety of purposes, including distance learning and English as a Second Language classes. Mayfield hopes that this opportunity will provide a “whole new place” for her patrons to go to learn new skills and participate in their community.
Martin and Sabbe both discussed with LJ how many library resources are built through cooperation, including partnerships with their university, community center, and local businesses. OCLC’s Gutsche added that this genuine community engagement is key to the success of the program because smart spaces “bring the community together to learn from each other [in ways that are] relevant to real life.”
Building Blocks to Success
In phase two of the program, participants will be taught how to develop prototypes for library spaces and how to integrate community feedback before investing in a more enduring solution. The Smart Spaces program itself was developed in a similar fashion. When considering the initial proposal, IMLS reviewers looked at OCLC’s history of working with rural libraries and its previous programs, including Geek the Library, Outside the Box, and partnership with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation on the Transforming Library Spaces for Community Engagement program. These initiatives served as pilots for testing out methods and approaches, and understanding how programs can be generalized across library communities, which ultimately informed the final approach of the Smart Spaces program.
The participating libraries interviewed agreed that the program builds on their investment in their staff and to their community. In the past, Morgan has used resources such as the Pew Research Center’s Libraries at the Crossroads report to illustrate to staff how “libraries have to be a community hub.” She sees this as an opportunity for her entire staff to learn the skills needed to respond to community needs. Mayfield told LJ, “it will help us grow and we are ecstatic.” Her small library, she added, is a place where “everyone does everything.”
Through WebJunction, the program will regularly share profiles of the participating libraries and develop webcasts and other ways to share the progress of the project, allowing libraries across the country to study these models and apply them to their own communities. Carrigan told LJ, “It’s exciting to see how each of these libraries will have a different experience, but [what we learn from it] will probably yield a much larger whole for the profession.” By partnering with ASRL and with OCLC’s WebJunction, the experience of the participants and the results of the program will serve as case studies and be shared more broadly in the field, Carrigan said. Site visits from IMLS will likely result in additional reports and further assessment. Participating libraries will also be able to share their experiences through conference presentations and conversations with peers.