After architect Gregory Lukmire spent an hour in front of the Takoma Park City Council detailing ideas for a multi-million dollar renovation to the city’s library, councilmember Seth Grimes questioned the idea.
“How many [feet of shelf space] are we going to need in 10 years, and will we need any in 25?” Grimes asked.
Like newspapers, travel agencies and postal services, community libraries are facing existential challenges because of widespread digital technology and rapid information access.
Major questions persist about the library’s role in the 21st century. Do people still need to wander through a maze of seven-foot stacks when they have an ocean of information at their fingertips? What services and resources do people need or expect from libraries and librarians?
Montgomery County recognized the importance of the issue in 2012 when it formed a special government body to advocate for libraries. The county has since embraced a philosophy that libraries should be community centers above all else, serving a wide variety of functions besides book storage.
“Long gone are rows of books, ceiling to floor and window to window,” said Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice, who was appointed ‘Lead for Libraries’ in 2012 and served for three years before stepping down to head the education committee. “That’s not where we are any longer. So many resources are online.”
During his stint, Rice and the county dealt with long, costly renovations for the Gaithersburg and Olney libraries, which both reopened last year. The county subsequently adopted a new policy for library renovations that Rice said will drive down costs astronomically and minimize the amount of time a library is closed.
“We came up with the ‘refresh’ model,” Rice said. “Instead of totally rehabbing the library, it’s going in and installing the technological stuff we need, like laying wireless hubs throughout, all the things we need to do to make a 21st century library… We made that commitment that from now on, for all of our libraries, we would go through a refresh instead of a total rehab.”
Montgomery County is not the only county that thinks a library should be a flexible community space. Lukmire, who has built approximately 40 libraries in Maryland and Virginia since 1985, said he has witnessed the institution’s evolution firsthand.
“The library was once a place for stored books and has evolved into a community information center,” Lukmire said. “There’s a bigger emphasis on electronic media, and the library has become a great resource for lifelong learning, collaborative projects, and other community needs.”
Lukmire said the changing function of the library is often evident in the building’s layout.
“Libraries have become much more flexible and open to adaptation,” Lukmire said. “Many new libraries have few walls and small study rooms. A lot are glass enclosed to let in a lot of light, and have been designed so people interact more with library staff.”
In his presentation in Takoma Park, Lukmire suggested creating a large programming space where authors could give lectures or run workshops, and suggested a young adult area where students could have space to collaborate. Other library designers in the U.S. have proposed rooms for loud and vocal discussion and a Starbucks-style café area among other layout possibilities.
Lukmire referenced a few local examples of creative use of space, including a Frederick County library that has a central space for art shows and concerts and a Carroll County library that combines a gym and library into one facility.
As the physical structure of the library evolves, so does the occupation for the people working inside, according to Ann Weeks, an associate dean at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Science.
Weeks said her library science students are receiving a very different education than students did 10 years ago, and future librarians are getting more digital training than ever before.
But she said the core function of a librarian—to be a problem solver for the public—remains consistent.
“The role of the librarian is to help people connect with information and to answer questions, to help people be successful, whether it’s in school, personal life or business,” Weeks said. “The role of the librarian is really a facilitator, of helping people make connections.”
The plans Lukmire shared are not full proposals, but ideas for councilmembers and the community to consider. Grimes said the council will likely deliberate further after Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams calls for a work session.
The possible library renovations will compete for funding with other project ideas, including rebuilding the city’s recreation center, renovations to the police department, and a new gym.
Grimes said the library is an important “information hub” for Takoma Park, but the council should take into account both present and future concerns.
“Should our library increasingly support electronic devices, and do more to lend out e-books?” Grimes said. “These are the kinds of questions we need to ask as we consider an expensive investment. We want to make sure that it’s not based in current needs but in anticipated needs.”