Carolyn Anthony’s office in the Skokie Public Library seems to contradict itself. On one hand it is modern. A computer sits atop a plain desk in the middle of the room and faces large windowpanes which line two of the four walls. One set peers onto Oakton Street and the other doubles as a door to a small rooftop garden.
On the other hand, the office is covered in paper. Boxes of paper files sit atop the desk and line the rest of the walls. Magazines and pamphlets swallow up another table near the front door. The office provides an indication of the transitionary stage most public libraries face today.
Anthony deals with this transition as both the director of the the Skokie Public Library and the president of the Public Library Association.
“Technology has had a huge impact on libraries,” Anthony said. “It means that libraries are less collection-centric but continually community-centric. What you find now is a lot of libraries doing a variety of things that depend on what the local needs are.”
Increasingly, libraries are evolving into institutions for public learning as well as places for key societal interactions. Along with the traditional services like checking out books, libraries offer new opportunities for their community, such as 3D printing and business counseling, that would be difficult or expensive to find elsewhere.
The Pew Research Center conducted a two-and-a-half year study about “the role of libraries in users’ lives and in their communities in the digital age.” A portion of the study released in 2013 reported 91 percent of the surveyed Americans said libraries are an important part of their communities and “a notable share” said they support more technology use in the library.
“Some of the questions we’re throwing around at the Chicago Public Library are ‘How might we expose people to emerging ideas and tools that will help them improve their own lives, form businesses and improve the economy of our city,’” said Brian Bannon, the commissioner of the Chicago Public Library.
The Chicago Public Library was honored with the National Medal for Museum and Library Services in May. According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the medal recipients “demonstrate extraordinary and innovative approaches to public service, exceeding the expected levels of community outreach.”
A study by the Heinrich Heine University Dusseldorf in Germany also named the Chicago Public Library system the best in in the country and third in the world. The study based its ratings on the libraries’ abilities to “support citizens, companies and administrations in their city and their region with digital services, and communicate with their customers via social media and offer physical spaces for meeting, learning and working, as well as for children and other groups in a building which is a landmark of the city.”
“Since we now live in the knowledge and information age it turns out there’s a lot of different tools that are at our disposal besides the book,” Bannon said.
Karen Danczak Lyons, the director of the Evanston Public Library, believes the future position of public libraries takes a departure from books and focuses on dedicating a public learning space for their communities.
“Books are not even in our brand,” Lyons said. “Our brand is community, events, ideas, resources. An urban public library in 2014 is really a community space where we gather and explore and exchange ideas and look for ways to make connections.”
Originally published June 4, 2014 for Medill's Multimedia Storytelling class.