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What are public libraries for?

Out with the Dewey Decimal System. In with co-working spaces, podcast studios, and goats.

By Schuyler Velasco

Growing up in Adams County, a sprawling, semirural community outside of Denver, Ser Herr visited his neighborhood library at least once a week, making a beeline to the children’s section. “It was just literally books,” Herr, 31, remembers. “Once in a while my mom would rent a movie for us. But it was about as simple a library as you could get.”

Today, Herr’s most-frequented Adams County branch is an open-concept building outfitted with a coffee shop and decorated with realistic-looking trees, complete with leaves that change color with the seasons. The library system’s name itself has changed; it now brands itself “Anythink.”

The temple of books is changing, as communities like Adams County reevaluate the institution’s role in public life. For over a century, that role was to be the main source of materials and information, says David Lankes, director of the school of library and information science at the University of South Carolina. “A lot of people think of libraries as a place that collects stuff, whether it’s books, documents, music, what have you,” he says.

But now, library patrons need fewer tangible things. Patrons still check out books: Library checkouts in the U.S. dwarfed Amazon book orders as of 2014. But people can also borrow books directly on e-readers, or access them through Spotify-esque subscription services.

Public libraries have to evolve into something more tailor-made to local communities — with uses so diverse they can look nothing like a library at all.

Overall, U.S. library visits still are trending downward. The White House’s latest federal budget proposes eliminating federal funding for libraries, an unlikely move that, if passed, would disproportionately affect areas that can’t rely as much on tax funding and friendly local governments.

That means that, to survive, public libraries have to evolve into something more attuned to modern needs and tailor-made to local communities — with uses so diverse they can at times look nothing like a library at all.

Farewell to Dewey

The transformation of the Adams County system owes a lot to broader economic fortunes. When Herr was growing up in the 1990s, much of the county was struggling economically. So was its library system, which had a $4 million operating budget and just four branches to serve 325,000 residents over 1,200 square miles.

“The buildings were kind of ’60s, aging, under capacity, dark,” recalls Pam Sandlian-Smith, who came on as director in 2007. “Eighty percent of the collections were older than 20 years. We didn’t have funds to buy basic supplies like pencils and tape and poster board.”

But by the mid-2000s, the Denver area was starting to transform into a booming tech and industry hub, and the Adams County libraries were granted an influx of additional funding — Because of a mill levy increase in 2006, the system was able to qualify for certificates of participation that helped fund a $60 million building project. Rather than spend it all on new editions and cosmetic repairs, the library system underwent a total facelift — from radically reconfiguring its physical spaces to retooling the way it catalogues books.

An avid reader, Herr still uses the library primarily for checking out books. But he finds himself sticking around for other reasons — to study, or hold offsite work meetings for his job at a marketing firm, or to book a conference room for his church leadership group. 

And there are other ways Anythink has found to get people into its seven campuses: studios for producing podcasts and music; 3D printers; ample programming. The libraries held 470 children’s programs in 2018, ranging from STEM workshops to music and movement classes. In the summer, goats visit the libraries, part of a program to teach children about farming. The broad menu has paid off: In 2018, the small county’s library system had 108,555 cardholders and 1,130,415 total visits, both increasing roughly 40 percent over 10 years.

“It’s always packed in there,” Herr says. “I’ve been there when they’re about to close and they have to turn off the lights to force everybody out.”

Some of what Anythink did was just a matter of rebranding. (Buzzy names are a trend; In London, libraries are called “Idea Stores;” a system in Montana goes by “ImagineIf”).

“People told me I was ruining the profession, I should give up my credentials.”

But changing the library’s image has also meant doing away with some staples of the library experience — most notably, the nearly-150-year-old Dewey Decimal System, which organizes nonfiction texts by way of an intricate, numbers-based hierarchy. After a few standalone branches across the country experimented with jettisoning Dewey, Anythink became the first library system in the U.S. to abandon it entirely.

At first, the move was all-but-scandalous in the staid world of information science. “People told me I was ruining the profession, I should give up my credentials,” Sandlian-Smith laughs. Even now, she’d advise against it for academic libraries, or bigger outfits with more complicated inventories.

But many of the focus groups Sandlian-Smith assembled before the Anythink overhaul said they couldn’t make sense of the catalogue, or find anything without help. The new system, modeled after bookstores, is word-based. So instead of listing all cookbooks under a master number — 641 — Anythink labels them “Cooking,” then creates new categories as needed: Cooking-Baking, Cooking-International, Cooking-Healthy, etc. Sandlian-Smith says this model also allows the library to separate academic textbooks from more popular reads, and to better account for other media: music, movies, even less-conventional items like recording equipment and outdoor gear.

Your friendly librarian

Like the library industry writ large, Anythink has also grappled with staffing. As programs and event planning become more intrinsic to the library’s role, the job of the librarian is becoming more customer-facing, geared toward community engagement, not always suitable to the stereotypical introverted bibliophile. Anythink has hired many people from the hospitality industry; its job postings include words like “generous” and “team-oriented.”

“The folks who might self-select to go to library school might not be the people who are going to be happiest or successful in public libraries now,” Sandlian-Smith says. “I have this conversation all the time with other library directors. You need to be recharged by being with people and making sure that they’re having a good experience. It’s a different type of work now, and everybody doesn’t fit.”

Lankes, at the University of South Carolina, says the college curriculum for library sciences is starting to evolve accordingly. “If we’re talking a century ago, [the prerequisites were] being tall enough to reach the top stacks and clear handwriting,” he says. “Now our curriculum has to deal with yes, cataloging and management — but increasingly soft skills, and figuring out what a specific community needs. It’s a big shift.”

And what communities need from their libraries varies as much the communities themselves. Even within Adams County, that changes from branch to branch. Poorer neighborhoods might need more in the way of basic utilities and internet access; those with more families need after-school programs and bigger children’s sections; other branches have maker spaces and piano rehearsal rooms.

Those needs evolve in surprising ways. When Anythink launched a decade ago, its flagship branch boasted a vast, state-of-the-art computer lab. From the start, almost no one used it, something the rise of the iPhone only exacerbated. “It was a huge surprise to us,” Sandlian-Smith says. The room was soon converted into a printmaking studio.

According to Lankes, that ethos of flexibility is a far cry from the original, Industrial Revolution-era conception of libraries, which tended to all look the same. Anythink’s transformation has been widely lauded in library circles; Sandlian-Smith is a frequent speaker everywhere from industry conferences to the Aspen Ideas Festival. Library directors across the country and as far away as The Netherlands get in touch for advice.

And the changing needs of consumers are prompting changes in academic libraries, as well. “At the same time that books increasingly lie dormant, library spaces themselves remain vibrant,” wrote Dan Cohen, Northeastern University’s Dean of the Library, in a recent piece in the Atlantic. “Snell Library at Northeastern now receives well over 2 million visits a year—as retreats for focused study and dynamic collaboration, and as sites of an ever wider array of activities and forms of knowledge creation and expression, including, but also well beyond, the printed word.”

Not all library systems can reinvent themselves so dramatically; $60 million funding hikes don’t grow on trees. But both Lankes and Sandlian-Smith say libraries have the chance to be resilient, in part because of their baked-in emphasis on sharing.

Rural systems that can’t invest in new buildings or Anythink-style rebranding can still get resources more easily, thanks to the internet. New York’s public library has a program to license WiFi hotspots to low-income neighborhoods, making resources independent of a physical space whatsoever. “If you have a phone that can connect, you can have a library wherever you are,” Lankes says.

But, he adds, “the physical space, that’s something that all the great virtual services in the world can’t provide.” For Sandlian-Smith and Anythink, space — and how to use it — remains the central concern in the library system’s future plans. “We need more,” she says. Future branches may include gallery spaces for touring art exhibits to come through, or co-working spaces for startup businesses and freelancers.

Sandlian-Smith says her team is working with local neighborhood developers on how and where to include new library buildings in their plans — something that “never would have happened 10 years ago.”

“We’re not working in isolation,” she says. “We’re being asked to be part of the conversation — not just about the future of libraries, but the community. I think that’s remarkable.” 

Julia Beck contributed to this article.

Published on

Schuyler Velasco is Senior Editor of Experience. 


Illustration by Cristina Spanò


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