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The Past, Present, and Future of Libraries

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Conversations and Insight into the Ever-Changing Community and Learning Centers Around the Country

"Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life,” Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007, American writer and producer).

Communities across the country know how important libraries are to their residents. For some, these facilities are gateways to education, for others, they’re a comfortable place to thrive during the day.

Granted, the requirements for occupants at a library shift on a regular basis. In a world that changes rapidly, especially advancements in technology, libraries find themselves regularly shuffling operations in order to stay modernized.

As it relates to society as a whole, libraries help fill in the gaps for citizens who don’t have the same level of access to materials as others. This covers a wide range of things, such as printing services and research materials to internet access and a safe place to stay during the day.

“We have such a broad mission to serve everyone in the community, and it’s incredibly difficult, but we want to be great at everything we do,” John Szabo of the Los Angeles Public Library said in an interview with Bloomberg. “As we move into the fall, we do have to look at what the issues and needs are and align our major initiatives around them.”

Additionally, libraries are already undergoing significant changes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, both inside the building and from an operational perspective.

“I believe as visitors return to the library there will be an ongoing need to have digital access both within the library and remote through the cloud,” said Tim Pool, PE, RCDD, the Executive Vice President of Tec Inc.

With so many changes occurring in just over a year, including a plethora of new services and activities, it’s important to reflect upon the path libraries have taken up to this point, in addition to looking at the present and future changes occurring to these spaces.

Changes As a Direct Result of COVID-19

Like most facilities, libraries faced a unique challenge in adjusting to the post-COVID world. However, many libraries found that they were uniquely positioned to adjust services and deliver clients with many necessary resources.

“In my experience, the work-from-home environment requires even more communication than ever before for engineers,” said Mr. Pool. “It sounds funny, but the more methods we use to technically communicate with each other, there is more need to properly document the items covered and provide a summary of understanding on a particular topic. For example, I have adjusted my note-taking and provided summaries of conversations after each meeting. I think for most of our clients they appreciate the additional documentation and follow-up.”

Certainly, now more than ever, the issue of communication comes to the forefront for library facilities.

Another key aspect to consider, however, is the proliferation of digital learning and virtual programs offered at libraries. Clearly, without the ability to offer events in-person last year into early-2021, libraries needed to find a way to adapt.

In a conversation with Tec Inc.’s CEO, Terry Kilbourne, LC, he explained the widened variety of offerings local libraries have added since the outbreak. “As with many businesses’, libraries have evolved further into the virtual and electronic communication because of the Pandemic. Board and committee meetings are now held via Zoom, and programs and events are now online as well.”

“Virtual Chips & Chapters for kids K-2nd grade, and snack at home with an online story is just one example. As much as the Pandemic is a challenge it provided library staff the opportunity to unleash their creative juices.”

These kinds of programs don’t come without significant consideration for the technology’s effectiveness in practice. To carry out one of these events with success, internet access and strong wi-fi connectivity are a must.

According to an article in the New York Times, there’s a clear understanding among librarians that the future presents the need for an extension of free wi-fi, a growth of social services, and the availability of online content to replace the pre-existing physical copies. Clearly, digital options take up much less space, but they aren’t a one-for-one replacement.

One interesting way the Toledo Lucas County Public Library hopes to tackle the issue of connectivity consists of deploying a series of mobile vehicles equipped with wi-fi hot spots. This project would be a significant investment, so with the library currently facing a budget slide from the pandemic, it’s more of a concept of the future.

Through creative breakthroughs like this, libraries go beyond serving the public from their own facility. They’re continuing to innovate and find ways to improve communities as a whole.

The Direction of Libraries Heading into the Future

With so many libraries made available to so many different communities, it’s clear that there is a wide range of requirements for those facilities. For certain, the sheer variety presents quite the challenge in the evaluation process.

However, one key thing is clear: libraries see the world going digital.

“Virtually all libraries have patron and staff safety top of mind. To this end, we try to maximize sightlines for staff, keep glare to a minimum,” Mr. Kilbourne said.

“Theft has also been a concern for libraries, not necessarily with books, but digital media. Enhancements to building security have become a design standard. The need for technology, for staff and patrons, has consistently increased over the past 15+ years. While the means and methods of providing technology access throughout the library have changed dramatically, the need has grown exponentially. As technology continues advancing libraries, in particular, are finding it difficult to keep up.”

Of course, community libraries aren’t the only ones feeling a need for change now. Higher education libraries are finding themselves shifting on the fly, especially with hybrid classes becoming a core part of education.

After a year-and-a-half that required so much adaptability from those working at and attending higher education institutions, it’s likely that some of those points of success will continue into the future. In an article for Library Journal, Christopher Cox and Elliot Felix conclude, “The online services, collections, and programming that libraries offer have been extremely successful.

“Students and faculty will expect them to continue even when [they] can return to regular physical interaction. Libraries will offer research consultations, instruction sessions, programming, and events simultaneously in person and online.”

Working with Consulting Engineers Helps Libraries Keep Their Occupants Happy

In the process of continual change for all library facilities, sometimes the simple things can go overlooked. However, developing a relationship with a consulting engineer helps ensure that items like security, access control, internet connectivity, electrical and ventilation systems, and light fixtures stay up to date.

For example, Tec Inc. works with Cleveland Public Library and its variety of branches on a regular basis. Through this relationship, our team has identified unique solutions to the challenges that face some of their historic facilities, allowing them to achieve the needs of modern users.

“We had a great experience working with the Cleveland Public library,” Mr. Pool explained. “We used a first-of-its-kind, very low-profile, raised flooring system in the Tech Central area at the Main library that allowed low voltage power systems to be adjusted as computer desks changed locations. This provided the library flexibility as they moved PCs for various functions.”

While it may seem simple, it’s hard to overstate the value those basics have on the comfort of occupants. After all, library spaces are meant to serve their communities, and keeping them comfortable helps them make the most of the facility. Allowing libraries to address any problems before they happen, consultants provide convenience and cost savings. Bringing in a consultant can help libraries address shortcomings and find ways to improve their facilities, all while staying within their budget.

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In so many communities Libraries continue to the Heart of the community. Such a valuable resource.

Jim Pelka
Jim Pelka

In my opinion, excellent reading skills are developed from age 2 thru 12. Libraries at home and school are a valuable and important resource. The Library building on many college campuses is considered the most important facility for the student body whether it be an undergraduate, post graduate status, as well as the community in general with continuing-ed programs and research. Learning to read proficiently at an early age and using the community library facilities throughout life, a person can meet their expectations, achieve many goals and fulfill dreams.

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