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Columbia Business Monthly

Libraries Evolving With Times

Mar 06, 2018 02:23PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley
Photography ©2018 Brian Dressler /

It wasn’t too long ago that a trip to your local library might look just like a trip to a library across the country. Today, though, libraries have begun to both embrace and reflect the needs of their own vibrant communities, and aisles and aisles of books are just one small fraction of what the library has to offer.
David Lankes, director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, has been closely studying this shift in identity. He’s written and spoken at length on the subject, established a concept called the Knowledge School at USC, and he wrote the book on the changing horizon of libraries in The Atlas of New Librarianship.

To Lankes, the single biggest challenge that libraries are currently facing is rewriting the old library narrative.

“Nostalgia is the biggest enemy of libraries today,” Lankes said, a notion he attributed to John Palfrey, author of the book BiblioTECH. “Many people formed their idea of what a library is when they were 10. Depending on how old you are, that could be a 10-, 20-, 30-year outdated notion of libraries. Even worse than that is it’s a 10-year-old’s outdated view.”

Much of the classic library stereotype, Lankes explained, came from the surge of industrialization at the end of the 19th century. A push for standardized mass-production and efficiency (think Dewey Decimal System) combined with rising technological capabilities resulted in a somewhat generic library format that emphasized the breadth of a collection, rather than its depth.

Today, though, the Internet and other technological advances have made information sharing easier than ever, allowing librarians to focus more on curating community-specific collections, services, and programs to enrich their patron’s lives.

Lankes’ concept of the Knowledge School considers all of these factors and encourages libraries to get back to their roots.

“[Libraries are] really places that help communities make smarter decisions—whether these are smarter decisions about how we use land, how we do taxes and economic development, how we create vibrant culture, or how we attract people to move here,” he said. “The Knowledge School’s concept is that, rather than looking at libraries as places people go to process information, they’re places that people go to make meaning, to figure out, ‘How do I make my life better?’”

A main tenet of this concept is that libraries are no longer built (nor are they desired) to be a one-size-fits-all establishment, something Lankes pithily refers to as the “De-McDonaldization of libraries.”

“Melville Dewey wanted to build libraries like factories: you could walk in anywhere and it would generally be the same,” Lankes explained. “But what is it like in Columbia? What is it that’s unique to us? What kinds of services do we offer?”

Melanie Huggins, Richland Library’s executive director, has been asking those same questions. In 2015, the library system began a $59 million county-wide renovation put towards answering them, with $15 million of that budget going towards the Main Library on Assembly Street.

What this physically looks like is a sleek and newly renovated space, complete with maker spaces, digital teleconferencing rooms, and a larger reconfigurable space for up to 150 people. More importantly, though, to Huggins, whose served as director since 2009, are the changes that are not immediately visible.

“What I hope happens is that more cities and communities understand the vital role that libraries play in making cities and communities economically resilient, making them attractive to talent, and I hope that people understand the work that we do to really help the disenfranchised,” Huggins said.

Offering spaces for entrepreneurial groups like 1 Million Cups – Columbia to meet, providing resources (like free internet) for people figuring out new paperless government initiatives, and including services to help those with learning disabilities like dyslexia are all additions put in place to serve Columbia’s unique demographics.

In Columbia, the city’s size and infrastructure is another factor that lends the library an advantage when it comes to implementing in-demand services.

“I think what makes Richland County and Columbia a great place is that it’s big enough to attract people, but it’s small enough that the library director can be at the table talking about entrepreneurship or how we can be more inclusive to the LGBT community,” Huggins said. “It’s just the right size for the library to have a meaningful role.”

To fulfill this role of finding tailored solutions, libraries are moving well beyond the simple notion of information access that has previously guided librarianship.

“Being in a leadership position in libraries is all about helping to lead your city,” Huggins said. “Depending on your community, you can be part social worker, part advocate, and part civic engagement coordinator…Columbia Richland County is really fortunate that most people recognize and understand what a jewel they have in their library system.”

By shifting programming, resources and even the way space is physically allocated to better meet the unique needs of the community, libraries are now more than ever a reflection of the people.

“That’s the Knowledge School push: libraries as places where people come to be knowledgeable and to grow knowledge, not to be informed and not to consume, but to go and learn,” Lankes said. “Yes, you can get materials like you can get elsewhere; yes, you’re going find a reference desk… but you’re going in, and it’s a very [community-specific] experience: what do they need here?”