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Designing for the Near Future
Volume 42, Number 3 - May/June 2018


Coming down from that lofty view, there are some very practical things to consider when thinking about the future of technology in your library. First, power and network, both wired and wireless, everywhere. Even though we're planning to drown the building in wireless, we're putting in wired connections all over the place. If, in the future, we want to turn a group study room into a network-intensive data lab or a staff office, we could do that easily. Second, avoid built-in or customized. Because of the pace of change in technology, bolt it on, don't build it in. In a recent conversation with architects, IT, and AV folks, we decided that, as a general principle, we do not want any built-in monitors, even though aesthetically that might be better, because 5 years from now, we can't be sure we'd be able to, or want to, get a screen of the same dimensions as that for which we're now planning.

Since we're talking about walls and what to do, or not do, with them, let's talk about designing spaces for the future. There are some guiding principles to help create spaces that will age gracefully and transform to support the services a changing community needs and wants. Some, of course, require structural changes to facilities, and not everyone has that luxury. If you do, then those will be helpful. If you don't, keep in mind there are lots of space changes that can be made without needing a sledgehammer.

The first principle is flexibility—relatively few walls, plus walls that move and retract. Furniture needs to be lightweight, configurable, and movable. A multipurpose space needs to be able to be configured and reconfigured quickly and easily by any staff or community member. Spaces should be de signed for inclusion and cross-pollination. While there is value in demographic-specific zones, there is also value in cross-discipline, cross-generation, and cross-skill level interactions. This is as much a policy and program issue as it is a space consideration.

You've probably seen pictures of libraries of the future, or maybe are lucky enough to work in one. You've no doubt noticed one common characteristic is the presence of glass and light. There are lots of reasons for this, but one I'd like to single out is the idea of porosity. Flexible, open, visible spaces allow users to see what's happening in the library, whether it's making in a glass-fronted makerspace or interactive learning in a hands-on instruction space open to view. Libraries have gone from places of quiet reading and reflection to vibrant spaces of creating and learning. Putting all of that activity behind glass, making it visible, adds to the vibrancy and inspirational nature of the space. Not only are we putting our programs and services on full display, but also our forward-thinking spaces are doing the same with staff. Library collections remain vital, but just as vital are our staff and their expertise. Thus, many libraries are putting staff in more open, visible spaces to make that expertise literally more visible and to make referring and directing within a space easier.

A related trend is to make the invisible library visible. We're making staff more noticeable by placing them more prominently within our spaces. Using tech, we can also surface and display behind-the-scenes activity, such as popular catalog searches, the amount of activity on the library website, and the outputs created using our expertise and resources. We can also surface information about the space itself, such as the number of group rooms, seats, and computers available, and display real-time information about areas of the library that are most and least active, more and less noisy, or warmer or cooler.

Finally, a trend to consider when designing spaces and services is self-service. Libraries have had self-checkout for books and other materials for years, it's true. But what about the vending of “stuff,” like laptops, cameras, or other technology? And what about transaction-less checkout of materials, that is, users simply leave the building with what they want, and items are automatically checked out for them, friction- free? Amazon has opened the first such store of its kind in Seattle. For the library, automating these types of tasks can free resources that might be spent elsewhere.

Designing for the near future is art and science. It takes understanding yourself and your community, along with general trends in technology, space design, and service delivery. You're necessarily placing bets, but if you've done your research, the odds will be in your favor.

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Jeff Wisniewski is web services librarian, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh.


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