These Days, Libraries Are About More Than Just Books

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy / Erin McCarthy

Most sessions at SXSW go like this: You go to a room in a hotel and find a seat in a conference room, where someone speaks for 45 or so minutes while you dutifully take notes; this is followed by a 15 minute Q&A session. But it was immediately clear when I arrived for Libraries: The Ultimate Playground that this was not how this particular session would be unfolding. The room was set up with a few stations where the crowd—librarians, lovers of libraries, and more—could talk about the challenges facing libraries and what they’re doing to be about more than just books. There were chips and beer, poster board displays, and an actual sandbox. Within two seconds of sitting down, I was bopped on the head by a playground ball (which brought back a lot of elementary school memories…but that’s a post for another time). Obviously, I would not be taking notes during this particular hour. Instead, I left my laptop in my bag, circulated between stations, and learned all about two creative ways libraries are diversifying.

Embracing the Maker Movement

According to Tina Coleman of the American Library Association, making is something libraries have been doing for years with their teen crafts and scrapbooking circles—they just didn't realize it. "That all falls within the make rubric, so a lot of libraries are starting to realize that they can use that as a way to expand into bigger things like robotics or partnering with their local maker or hacker spaces," Coleman says. "Maker spaces are starting to show up inside libraries, and [libraries are] building relationships with maker communities." Chicago Public, for example, has a space where people can engage in digital making, using equipment to craft mix tapes or using software to record their own music or edit a video.

Other libraries are looking into how they can use 3D printers in maker spaces and to help communities. "They’re exploring the options of doing things like, you know, 'I broke this piece of my bed, and it’s going to cost me $40 if I order it online. Can I just print it because somebody already did the work of creating a file?'" Coleman says. "That's the kind of thing [libraries are thinking about]: Pop down to your library, print something out. Sort of like the old photocopier system that all of us probably remember." Other things some libraries are looking into having in their maker spaces: soldering stations, laser etching and cutting, and more. "I think it’s really going to depend a lot on what each library finds out that their community cares about," Coleman says.

Crossing the Digital Divide

Rural areas face many challenges, including limited access to wifi. Enter the Library Box, a project by Jason Griffey, Head of Library IT at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This portable, private digital distribution system is a router that connects to a battery pack, and acts as a self-contained webserver. "Basically, it’s closed circuit," says Cindy Fisher of the University of Texas at Austin Libraries. "He did it so that when you’re in a space where you don’t have wifi but you have files that people need to be able to download, [you can use this]. You can't, as a user, upload to it on the fly, but it's got a USB card so [librarians] can take it out and load [information] on here, so users can download ebooks, music, a web archive, web pages, video, all that stuff."

The materials needed to create a Library Box cost just $40, and the code is all open source. During SXSW, the devices were deployed on pedicabs, so riders, using nothing but their smart phones, could download books as they traveled to their destinations. "We were like, 'These could totally go on pedicabs along with books to show that libraries are both digital and physical!'" Fisher says.

These Library Boxes aren't just good for areas that lack wifi; Fisher thinks that it also has applications for travelers going to conferences. "Let’s say that you’re going to a conference and you have a lot of stuff that you want people to be able to download, but you know that the wifi network is just not going to be as fast as you want it to be," she says. "This is super fast because it’s a direct connection. [Library Boxes] take the availability and speed of the internet and close it off a little bit [so people can] curate it and make it accessible [to the people who need it]."

Learn more about how the Library Box works by watching the video below: