What's in the future for libraries?
Cafes, teen zones, 'market places' and 'community living rooms,' says county library director
On the bookcase in Victoria Johnson's San Mateo office is a lackluster librarian action figure dressed in a calf-length, navy blue dress suit. If you push a button, she raises one index finger to her lips.
Ms. Johnson, with her turquoise sweater and flared skirt, presents a stark contrast — not only because of her fashionable appearance, but because of her notions, enthusiastically expressed, of how a library ought to work.
And "quiet" is not the operative word.
As director of library services for San Mateo County, Ms. Johnson oversees the 3.5 million library materials that circulate through the county's 12 libraries, which include branches in Atherton, Woodside, and Portola Valley. She believes strongly that lending materials should be made attractive and available to everyone, including the new generation of "digital natives," who receive and process information differently from older, "digital immigrants."
As part of her effort to attract the young, plugged-in generation to the library community, she's working toward putting into place a new type of library in San Mateo County — a model she calls "the library of the future."
This library, according to her vision, would include cutting-edge circulation technology, cafes, "teen zones," computer labs and homework centers, "marketplaces" to make popular books more accessible, family places and "community living rooms."
Ms. Johnson says this vision is not hers alone: She incorporates ideas submitted by all her branch managers to move into this next generation of library science.
On the surface, this new library model looks much more social and less academic than its predecessor. But it is nevertheless designed to keep the nuts and bolts of getting people the information they need intact.
As an example of the "library of the future," Ms. Johnson points to the recently built Belmont Library at 1110 Alameda de las Pulgas. Among its features is an "automated materials handling system" that looks something like an ATM machine and checks books in without the staff time required at most branches.
That facility also includes a cafe selling snacks and drinks, supplied and run by a vocational rehabilitation program — a feature whose time has come, Ms. Johnson says. Covered drinks will be allowed beyond the cafe inside the "library of the future," she says, noting that people already take their library books with them to dinner, to the beach, and sometimes to the bathtub.
Another new accommodation for updated libraries — this one certain to rankle some patrons: "Quiet" cell phone conversations will be allowed on library premises, Ms. Johnson says.
Although the county office of library services will push for modern features based on the "library of the future" model whenever a community renovates or rebuilds its library, decisions about the specifics will be collaborative, says Anne-Marie Despain, assistant director of library services.
Locally, the Portola Valley library community will be going through that collaborative process as it builds a brand new facility, scheduled to open in 2008.
Before computer technology, a librarian's job was very labor intensive, as each item had to be hand stamped, Ms. Johnson says. Her goal is to place 95 percent of the responsibility for checking materials in and out on the customer, leaving librarians more time to deal with people in a more personal way.
She says libraries will move toward providing more common meeting areas. A typical library will have a "family place," where babies, toddlers, young children and their parents can browse the picture books and where wall displays are scaled especially for them. The concept differs slightly from most existing children's sections in that there will be a designated storytelling place, whimsical lighting and a focus on relieving the harried young mother while helping to provide food for her child's brain.
The "community living room" would be designed to appeal to library patrons who prefer the traditional, hushed atmosphere. It would be fitted with comfortable chairs and ottomans, a gas fire, proximity to the periodicals, and "preferably a view," Ms. Johnson says.
But the space won't always provide sanctuary for customers who read best in total silence: Book groups and chamber music concerts could be scheduled in the community living room for afternoons and evenings, she notes.
With the library updates, traditional patrons who prefer a quiet environment for reading, browsing and research would do best to visit their library earlier in the day, Ms. Johnson advises.
The ability to buy a snack has attracted more youth to library "teen zones" after school in libraries that have food centers, Ms. Johnson says. A full stomach also leads to better behavior, she asserts, especially when high school students congregate in the group seating areas or make use of the glass-enclosed computer labs and homework centers, which employ volunteer coordinators from the Friends of the Library to ensure "quiet, contained work" at group tables.
A library "marketplace" in the front area will be part of updated libraries. In the marketplace, multiple copies of the most popular books are displayed with their covers facing out, as in a bookstore. "You don't have to write down all the numbers and match them to the spines to find them, as in the old system," says Ms. Johnson. "It's a lot easier for people who aren't used to doing that."
Of course, the library of the future has a strong "virtual" presence. Online sites act just like branch locations. Reference and audio books can be checked out for 24 hours by downloading to the cardholder's personal computer or MP3 player.
The library also subscribes to more than 50 proprietary databases that patrons can access for free. In addition, live homework help is available online every day until 10 p.m.
Wireless Internet service is available for laptop computer use at all branch libraries. And two free hours per day of access to the Internet via desktop computers is available for any purpose, such as research, e-mailing, or even playing games.
The making of a librarian
After spending a decade at home raising her children, Ms. Johnson began her second career as a part-time clerk at the South Pasadena Public Library in 1982. She says she felt frustrated because, as a clerk, she was not allowed to answer patrons' questions.
She went back to school and earned her master's degree in library science, and from 1986 to 1995, worked at the Pasadena Public Library.
She was director of libraries at the Sunnyvale Public Library from 1995 to 2005, and has been at her present job since then. She and her husband, David Johnson, who is the business development manager for the city of Menlo Park, live in Sunnyvale.
Ms. Johnson says she is thrilled to go to work each day and be the facilitator for people to get access to the information they want. She quotes Margaret Fuller, the 19th century journalist whose words are written on the wall at the Belmont branch: "If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it."
For more information, visit your local library or go to www.smcl.org.