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A Learning Experience

Janice Quinlan has glimpsed the library of the future.

She sees it in the morning, when the children’s area is packed with parents and youngsters taking part in reading and literacy programs. She sees it in the afternoon, when adults congregate in the library’s conference rooms for programs ranging from book clubs to discussion groups.

Of course, she also sees it when she peers into computer lab where users can access technology they could not otherwise use. In some ways, the future looks a lot like now— place to learn and experience new things.

“The mission goes back to what it was when libraries were founded,” says Quinlan, executive director of Friends of the Appleton Public Library. “It’s about being a community resource–whether that’s buying and lending books or buying and sharing technology.”

That central tenet of the library as a community resource will gain in importance as libraries move further into the digital age. As technology becomes more pervasive in the consumption and sharing of information, a community access point becomes even more important.

“Regardless of the format, libraries will always play a role for access to information,” says Colleen Rortvedt, director of the Appleton Library. “A library is a great platform to be able to come and learn things.”

The future of libraries has been a hot topic of late in Appleton, where the process of defining the library of the future and how it will interact with the community took a formal turn during more than a year of study and meetings with community focus groups, well-known futurists and staff. The results are reflected in APL 150, strategic plan that takes the Appleton Library to 2047, when it will celebrate 150 years.

The study charts a course for the library to become community hub for connecting people, ideas and experiences.

“Libraries are really in a unique position in that we can be a great platform to be able to come and learn all sorts of things,” Rortvedt says.

Just how that learning will take place is still work in progress, though we are beginning to see signs of how it may work.

As we progress further into the digital age, there will likely be less of a demand for physical books – though that too is a debatable point. Federal law designed to protect copyright holders from the wholesale theft experienced early in the Internet age actually make sharing a digital resource more difficult than sharing a physical book.

What’s clear, though, is that libraries are changing from a focus on acquiring books and objects to an emphasis on people, discovery and interaction.

“One of our roles will be to close the technological divide,” says Vicki Lenz, director of the Elisha D. Smith Public Library in Menasha. “But an important role will be programming. Our job will be helping to build communities by bringing people and ideas together.”

Libraries will take on a broader role of a community space, rather than just a repository of knowledge. While that role will be retained, there will be more opportunities for interaction, sharing and even entrepreneurism. In essence, it will become a vital creative space in the community.

“Libraries are so much more than just a collection,” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc., and a member of the vision team that helped to draft a new strategic plan for the Appleton Public Library.

What particularly excited Stephany was the feedback from young entrepreneurs who see the library as a potential space where they could research, collaborate and make connections to grow new business opportunities and products. Having a place they can do those things and share technology beyond the reach of most startups would make the library an attractive venue and help strengthen the community, she says.

“The entry barrier for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs is technology they might not be able to afford on their own,” Stephany says. “if they can access it through the library, then we have created a whole new cooperative workspace for downtown.”

For many of the region’s public libraries, a shift to the future has already started, even if it’s not a conscious one. Programming for young children, teens and adults exposes them to new ideas and skills. As that takes shape, it could mean the library functions as a place where young entrepreneurs access technology and tools a startup company just could not afford. Speakers and artists might use the space along with tutors and teachers to share their passion and information.

The New London Public Library is working on an experiment that provides a glimpse of how that might work. In the latest technology budget, Library Director Ann Hunt purchased two Raspberry Pi computers, which she has asked students to learn how to program, then share what they have learned with others.

“In the future, its going to be about access to information, not so much physical resources,” Hunt says. “We will be the ones to help those who don’t have it.”

Another option Hunt is considering is bringing in experts to teach hands-on classes such as bike repair. It’s all about providing space and opportunity to share ideas and collaborate, she says.

What libraries will physically look like is still being worked out.

One of the reason the Appleton Public Library initiated its study was to better understand its future space needs. The current building may need renovation or replacement and staff wanted to anticipate the needs.

The city of Appleton was expected to begin preliminary discussions in March about the future of the building. While that future will include many new opportunities, don’t look for books to disappear just yet.

“We will have books around for a long time yet,” Quinlan says. “But there is a paradigm shift coming, It’s really becoming a place for community collaboration.”

— By Sean P. Johnson

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