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Library as Place with Real Space

Once in a while a debate or discussion will pop up in library circles about the concept of library as place rather than as information provider, but I don’t see it come up in public discussions of libraries very often.

It’s an important debate, but one that usually doesn’t have immediate repercussions. It’s usually one of those philosophical debates within the community of librarians, or else part of a panicked debate on what the heck libraries are supposed to do once everything really is available so cheaply online no one will come to libraries for information anymore.

However, in Shrewsbury, Mass. the debate is alive, and practical, and going on between non-librarians. This should be a good thing. It shows people care!

I didn’t read far enough to get all the details, but it seems Shrewsbury might be eligible for some sort of state grant for library renovations in 2014. Before that happens, the town council wants a vote on a “debt exclusion question” that would allow the town to raise money to supplement the millions in possible federal aid and allow for the library to expand considerably in size.

Anything that’s going to lead to higher taxes, and town debt would surely do that, will always be opposed. The question always to ask is, why?

One earnest citizen opposed to the library expansion (and the extra money to pay for it) makes his case partly based on current trends in information technology. He points out that:

No assessment has been done for the effect of electronic books on libraries over the next 10 years. Since e-books takes up no shelf space, the library could be made considerably smaller, hence less expensive.

That’s a really good point, even more so if we included videos and music. While I’m not one of those who think the print book is dying, eventually a lot, if not most, of what books, videos, and music the media industrial complex will allow libraries to provide will be in digital format.

If you’re planning for the future of a library building, that should be taken into consideration. A library with a million books might fit on a one terabyte drive, and a terabyte doesn’t cost what it used to.

With a future like that, why on earth would a library expand its physical size?

For one thing, a local mom says the library needs more space, and unlike opponents, the local mom shows some evidence of actually having used the library. “Local mom” writes:

There is a serious lack of space in the children’s room, so much so that when my children were small and in a stroller, I found it difficult to even get there. We had to go down a tiny elevator that barely fit the stroller, let alone the rest of us; then into a hallway with hardly enough room to navigate the stroller; finally into the children’s room where my next problem was where to park the stroller (my only option being in front of the librarian’s desk).

I would sometimes become frustrated and turn to our neighboring communities. Northborough and Westborough have beautiful children’s rooms with wide open spaces, plenty of room for play, and cozy seating.

Perhaps it is the poor space for children in the public library behind the most popular headline in the Shrewsbury Patch as I write: Police Log: Unruly Child on Bus. I wouldn’t be surprised if children became more ruly if they had better public spaces.

The local mom brings up the problem of library as place, and not in the vague, utopian, naive way some librarians do, but in a very practical way. How do I get this stroller to the children’s room, and what do I do with it once I get there?

It’s the kind of thing librarians sometimes forget about because they don’t tend to push strollers around, although the size of some strollers these days makes it unlikely they can fit in any elevators, but that’s another issue.

One question is, would it really be worth it to pay millions of dollars so that local moms don’t have to travel an extra ten minutes to get to better libraries in neighboring communities?

It’s not a trivial question, since a million here and a million there, and pretty soon we’re almost talking real money, especially for a town of 35,000 people.

On the other hand, given that children are more likely to be at the library to use books, and that their books are the least likely to convert to digital, we might wonder why a library has such a small children’s area in the first place.

It’s not like children’s libraries are going to start loaning Kindles and iPads, nor that parents would sit idly by while children made crayon and tooth marks on their iPads the way they do when the object of infant punishment is a library book.

Children need space, and space needs a place.

They could stick all the adults into the children’s area with their laptops and kindles, and let the children have the run of the better space. Or they could spend millions to expand space that might not be necessary when the world goes digital.

This might be the best test of library as information provider versus library as place and what communities really think that we have at the moment, and I’m curious about which way Shrewsbury goes.



  1. or maybe we need more space because so many American are obese, we need the space for our giant asses.
    no, we need the space for the children. and since children are having children at younger and younger ages (I blame all those unnecessary vaccinations… and corn sweeteners), one day, our children won’t just have babies when they are babies, but will have babies even before they themselves are even born.
    either way, we’re making assumptions that our federal government will have the money to buy everyone wifi tablets as part of some program to create jobs or give our hands repetitive stress disorders. because we’ve had cheap computers for 25 years and we still have millions of Americans who don’t own one.
    so even if everything is available online and everyone has some device, the library will still need spaces for library holdouts, the clumsy who dropped their free tablets, and those with freakishly large fingers.

  2. Brian Rountree says:

    I like the “local mom” comments about the use of strollers. We also need to consider the needs of those (of all ages) in wheelchairs. Wider aisles and accessible tables help their needs. While not everything will ever be digital, people with hearing or vision impairments will also need assistive devices. The library has always been a gathering space for library-related activities– don’t forget all those workshops or mini-concerts that take place in the meeting rooms.

  3. Libraries are offering electronic books, yes, but they are still buying plenty in print. Not everything is available for download, so the students doing research, the guy who wants to start his own business, the woman learning how to knit, and the vast numbers of other library users still have to look for books in most cases.

    And it’s not Shrewsbury that sets the size of the building and figures out shelf space. The state has requirements based on population for square footage, parking, and such.

    Shelf space isn’t the only issue, though, as Brian mentioned above. Libraries are also community centers and meeting spaces, and as such they need rooms, chairs, tables, wide enough aisles to maneuver, technologies for accessing the Internet and assistive devices.

    I’ve found that an attitude of “good enough” prevails, even among strong library users. Instead of seeing potential for the future and being willing to support an even better resource, they are settling for “good enough,” which only satisfies for today.

  4. “Those unnecessary vaccinations”? Which, pray tell?

  5. Shrewsbury is the next town over from mine in central Massachusetts and I can tell you that a $19m project (of any type)is quite significant for this area.

    I read all four letters to the editor from the link above. All were well-written and made substantive points for and against the current library design and tax proposal. It’s this type of dialogue between the people who fund our libraries that will shape a meaningful future for them.

    What I wonder is how do we draw taxpayers to meaningful dialogue about our public libraries when there’s not huge financial decisions to be made?

  6. Let’s not forget the space needed for all of the computers for people who don’t have one to access all of this electronic and digital content . . . .

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