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Philadelphia Junto: Rethinking the Library

Visual notes by Jonny Goldstein

There’s really no better place for a group to discuss the future of public library facilities and services right now than the city of Philadelphia. With the potential closure of 11 Free Library of Philadelphia branches and mixed feelings in the community about whether those closures are a good choice, it is an excellent time to closely examine the role of the public library and how its physical locations and material collections can best serve the people. So on an icy Thursday, February 5th a room full of librarians, teachers, academics, technologists, designers, and community organizers came together for the Philadelphia Junto ‘Rethinking the Library’. In an open forum provided by P’unk Avenue, whose blog posts (1) and (2) were the impetus for this Junto, everyone got to speak their mind about what they believe the modern library should be.

It was a fun group of panelists. Sarah Murphy and Maria Falgoust are school librarians from the Browning School and St. Anns School, and are also the founders of the Desk Set. Jim Pecora is the Chief Technology Officer at the Philadelphia Free Library and was the kind of passionate, hands-on, man-of-many hats that you often find involved in public libraries. I had the opportunity to moderate the discussion, and I spoke about the Library Outpost as a way of diversifying the types of library service points within a larger system. The Library Outpost is a small, storefront space in a commercial area, business improvement district, or transportation hub with no local collection of library materials. The only items shelved in the space are materials that patrons requested online and are then delivered to the location for pickup. The Library Outpost removes the storage element from public space and frees up prime library space for programs, exhibitions, classes, movies, concerts, community meetings, serving coffee, and virtually any community-building, social capital-creating activity.


photo courtesy of Punkave

One issue that I insist upon speaking to in any “what is the library all about” conversation is helping people understand that the public library is NOT just all about books. This is a really difficult thing to understand for a lot of people, because in their minds libraries are synonymous with books. There have been plenty of market research studies that spell out loud and clear that the public perception of libraries is that they are buildings full of books. While providing access to books is ONE thing libraries have done and done well for a very long time, it really needs to be made clear that in a deeper way libraries are about informing democracy, providing equal access to information, inspiring lifelong learning, and promoting the idea that learning is a recreational activity. Books are a TOOL that libraries have used successfully to accomplish those goals over the last couple-hundred years. One of the wonderful things happening right now is that we have more and more different types of tools and media by which libraries can accomplish these goals. The reason libraries appear so challenged right now by giants like Amazon and Google in the book business is because we have failed in branding ourselves based on our core principles, instead we’ve branded ourselves around a tool by which we accomplish those principles. Not a good plan.

There was also a good bit of conversation about libraries as the only indoor public spaces in our communities, and what that means. Both Jim Pecora and a member of the library board from the Philadelphia Free Library testified to the fact that usage is up and that all of their buildings are busy as ever. The problem is that as libraries begin to use different kinds of tools to disseminate knowledge other than books, the facilities become increasingly unwieldy. Carnegie libraries do what they were built to do really well: they serve as browsable organized storage areas for printed matter. But now, as libraries are increasingly about conversation, community connections, and leveraging other types of social technologies to facilitate learning, these buildings are outmoded. Nobody wants to be rid of a beautiful historical landmark, but what replacement can be offered by a remarkably inagile public agency steeped in politics and beaurocracy? How can institutions like this become nimble? Can they?


photo courtesy of Punkave

One uplifting piece that host Geoff DiMasi of both Punkave and Indy Hall brought up was the kind of response this particular Junto had. Participants didn’t want to just talk about this subject matter, they were engaged and there is now this feeling of “what is the next step?” surrounding the discussion. If in fact library systems cannot become agile, how can they most efficiently partner with Coworking spaces or groups like Dave Egger’s 826NYC to define the future, meet in the middle, and eventually adopt best practices?

Thank you to everyone at that event for having me and for having such a positive, motivated attitude toward public libraries and their future. I’m quite aware that this blog post doesn’t even touch quite a few points that were made during the discussion, so I hope some of that will appear in the comments.

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There are 9 Comments to "Philadelphia Junto: Rethinking the Library"

  • I really love the idea of an outpost library—Just want to clarify something. In your vision of an outpost library, could I pick up a book there that I had ordered online?

  • Nate Hill says:

    Thats right Jonny! It’d be a location without a browsing collection- all of the browsing happens in the catalog, and then after you find what you want you place a hold on the item. If you take a look at your library catalog, you’ll see that you already have the option to have materials moved to the branch closest to you for convenient pickup. The Outpost takes it to the next level- it makes that the ONLY way you could get a book at that pickup point. Its not the right thing for every user, but its the right thing for many users. Stats show that placing online holds is incredibly popular across the country…

  • Laena says:

    I’m curious about the ways that the Outpost could utilize many of the innovative new bibliographic and interactive tools/models out there. As large beasts by nature, traditional urban public libraries have a hard time incorporating new tools and models. But I think there are ways we can look at libraries as the ultimate open source, crowdsourced spaces. For example, Tim over at LibraryThing is able to constantly invent and evolve tools like LibraryThing for Libraries, or the project I’m involved in, the Open Shelves Classification. With new models based on “core principles” and innovations to aid us, won’t we be able to easily and efficiently free ourselves from the constraints of a tool-shackled system?

  • […] February 8, 2009 · No Comments Recently a discussion about the future of public libraries took place in Philadelphia, a city that has seen its share of library closures in the past year.  Nate Hill, a colleague of mine from Brooklyn Public Library, moderated the discussion and blogged about it at the PLA blog. […]

  • This sounds like a very interesting and productive discussion about the current and future need for library services. In a city such as Philadlephia, where 25% live under the poverty level; more than 50% do not have access to computers except at the library; public schools often DO NOT have books for students or libraries; library patrons will use and need their branch differently depending on many things. Demographics are a big part of differential usage. I would have loved to have been invited to this meeting. Friends of the Freee Library of Philadelphia now has 50 Friends Groups that promote, volunteer and raise money for their branches and is the oldest (founded in since 1973) and most far reaching library stewards, I think I would have learned a lot and been able to offer a patron’s perspecitve. Perhaps I could be included in the next Junta–and by the way-who from the community was there?

  • Tracey Mantrone says:

    I’m the library supervisor for a Carnegie building in Brooklyn. For the past two years I have seen a steady increase in circulation, library cards and meeting room usage in my building. I deliberately advertised the building’s free wifi. I have designed my own handouts promoting library databases that I felt would appeal the most to my patrons. We have very many patrons who come in just to pick up items (we have a small collection so you really do have to put items on hold) as well as to use our free wifi. I keep asking for a cafe which I think would do well at this location. I live a few blocks from a Carnegie library in Queens with a really nice garden. I’ve never stepped foot in the building but if they set up an outdoor summer cafe I’ll become a regular on weekends.

    When I look at my building, I see space that I try to get used as much as possible. There is still alot of wasted space that could be used in a much better fashion. However, I think the building’s main problem was that people didn’t know it existed. The entire staff worked on outreach to the community and promoting the programs and the meeting room space. The more people we bring into the meeting rooms, the more exposure they have to our programs and print and electronic collections. We spent a few months hosting a FEMA van in front of the building and it was great PR for us.

    In NYC at least, the landmark regulations pretty much only apply to the exterior of the buildings. Most Carnegies have lots of space and definite aesthetic appeal. People like to sit in pretty buildings which is why the B&N Union Square cafe is always packed. The trick is to be imaginative in its redesign so that none of it is wasted and most of it is open to the public for a myriad of uses. Rethink how you use the space. Even if you can’t rip down walls, rethink how you use every foot.

    The other trick is to get out of the building and promote its services absolutely everywhere and don’t assume that people get everything from online.

  • Chris Maltz says:

    I was wondering if there was a way to tweak this library outpost concept to meet the needs of the truly underserved such as recent immigrants or the working poor. As is, the library outpost seems to appeal mainly to digerati and hipsters in gentrifying areas.

  • Nate says:

    Definitely Chris: this exact model doesn’t work everywhere for everyone. Libraries need diversified service points that address the needs of their immediate communities, not cookie-cutter branded environments. In some locations, a good Outpost facility could be nothing more than a room full of public access computers because that is what THAT community needs. Make sense? I can go into further detail…

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