A library with a bright future

Would you like a book with that coffee?Don Evans

Plans for the renovation of the Chapel Hill public library posted at the library Web site call for a 250-square-foot coffee shop to be included in the renovation. That’s in addition to a 600-square-foot library store that would sell “library items, selected books, notepaper, posters and other items.”

Of course, those plans were drawn up way back in 2003, so the coffee shop and library store could have been dropped from the plans by now. Let’s hope so, because that space could be used for much better purposes, such as bringing the library into the 21st century.

By all appearances, the town will start construction on the long-awaited library expansion next year, adding about 40,000 square feet of space to the already 27,000-square-foot facility. The cost recently was projected at $16.3 million and would be paid for through town-issued bonds.

All well and good. But a consultant’s report that was released in 2003 and included the coffee shop and library store is badly in need of updating. A lot has changed since then in what libraries can do. With the renovations about to begin, are town planners gazing into the future or looking over their shoulders?

Libraries are becoming more than just warehouses for books and places to find free information. One North Carolina library is even going to the extreme of making the library friendlier to the younger generation. The Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County has a multimedia space where kids can shoot videos and record music. It has a blog that is dedicated to gaming and hosts video game tournaments. The library in Aarhus, Denmark, has digital maps layered with factoids and book phones that kids point at specific books to hear a story. Pretty cool stuff!

And more and more libraries are becoming cultural centers, where the role as community center vies with that of lending books and videos. Makes sense to have the library, which already serves as a meeting place, become even more accessible and attractive to all members of the community.

So the question becomes, what services will the Chapel Hill library provide in 10 or 20 years? Here are some suggestions: The library planners should sit down immediately and look at how to provide podcasting and blogging stations to patrons. Does the library really need more than 2,600 square feet of space for periodicals, given the direction that print media is going in? An art studio as well as recording and video studios should be priorities, especially as ways to attract teen library-goers. New staff should include experts in new technologies, even to the point where a library user who is curious about a new technology can go to the library to consult with a staff member.

The town may be at a point where something even more wonderful than the most-used library in the state can be created for the community. If the town is going to spend all that money and effort on expanding its library, shouldn’t it make sure that the expansion is not just in space but also in knowledge potential?

— Don Evans

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