From Books to Chips
Many libraries are providing free high-speed Internet access to patrons via inexpensive "WiFi" networks. This is an open invitation to people to bring their laptop and "hang out" at the library to both do their research as well as enjoy games and entertainment available via such a connection.
As a result, public libraries are becoming the "third place," a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg (home is the first place, and one's workplace is the second). The new Vancouver (British Columbia) Public Library, for instance, has become a de facto community center.
Computer stations are now ubiquitous fixtures of the modern library, providing not only access to the library's own database but the database of an entire network of libraries. Interlibrary loans have increased tremendously.
Libraries are also using the Internet to provide their members with off-site access to services, such as reserving books, checking their records, and database research. Customized book search programs are now commonly available that help and even suggest new books that a member might enjoy reading. And, of course, libraries are increasingly using e-mail to send overdue, hold, and reservation notices to their patrons instead of using the slow and costly postal mail.
Other types of technology are streaming into our libraries, such as multimedia stations with scanners and printers, digital video editing equipment, and XML/RSS feeds to create customized "home pages" for patrons. All this new technology is improving user choice and customization.
In part, what drives recent changes is the "Millennial Generation" or "Generation Y," born from 1982 to 2000. In the United States, they are a population of some 60 million, second in size only to the postwar "Baby Boom" generation of 72 million. While the "boomers" are now approaching retirement, the "millennials" have begun to enter the workforce and will soon be a major social and political force.
According to a study for Library Administration & Management (Fall 2005) by Richard T. Sweeney, millennials expect more choices and selectivity, want more personalization, look for good buys at low cost, feel less need to conform, and are impatient and expect instant gratification.
The lessons that libraries (and other consumer-based services) can draw from this study is that millennials expect many alternatives and will be disappointed if a broad array is not provided. A library that does not offer wide choices in books, CDs, DVDs, and other media selections would be considered unsatisfactory by this generation.
A second lesson is that the millennials prefer customizable library services. For instance, search services should be able remember an individual's past searches and target future services to that history. A third lesson is that a millennial won't want to wait for weeks for a resource to be back-ordered. It had better be available right away — the sooner the better.
Other studies have characterized this generation as savvy, independent, flexible, family- and friend-oriented, and valuing intelligence. They are "digital natives" (having grown up with technology). They collaborate, multitask, expect anytime-anywhere communications, and read less than previous generations.
Millennials search Google much more than they search libraries. Today's library must adapt by reinventing itself with the aim of helping and stimulating people to learn more from the information they gather, not just trying to compete in the search itself. A compelling vision for the new library must be found to win and hold the loyalty of Generation Y — and the new Generation Z as well.
These rapidly evolving changing needs, values, services, and technology in the design of libraries make a fascinating statement on the direction in which our entire society is headed. The future shock is over; the future is here.
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Evan H. Shu, FAIA is an architect with Shu Associates Inc. in Melrose, Massachusetts. He is a contributor to publications such as The Architect's Handbook of Professional Practice and Architectural Record and is publisher and editor of Cheap Tricks, a monthly newsletter for DataCAD users and computer-using architects.
This article was reprinted from the February 2006 issue of Cheap Tricks © Shu Associates Inc. with permission of the publisher.