Backstory: Minneapolis leaves a bookmark

A flagship library, opening May 20, will have a theater, a hip room for teens, and fireplaces on every floor.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Patrons will check out their own books at electronic kiosks. Visitors will be able to download iTunes and eventually movies. Teens will have their own hip reading lounge where they can bring drinks and snacks and write poetry on the walls. And the librarians won't be sitting behind desks, stamping book cards. They'll be walking around among the stacks, talking on wireless devices dubbed "Star Trek" badges.

When the new central library in Minneapolis opens next month, it will provide a glimpse of what the library of tomorrow will look like - and a test of whether buildings traditionally devoted to books can survive in the age of the Internet. By most accounts, the downtown facility will be one of the most innovative in the nation, combining several emerging trends in library redesign under one roof.

Much of it will be familiar: stacks of books on four floors encompassing 38 miles of shelving, all open and easily accessible. But the facility will also have elements that Andrew Carnegie, the patriarch of the modern American library movement, wouldn't recognize: digital book collections, a theater for readings and film showings, and more computers than NASA - 300 in all.

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Patrons will use them for everything from global online chats to discovering how to become a US citizen.

In that sense, the new flagship of the Minneapolis Public Library (MPL) system isn't competing with the Internet, but embracing it. Like other libraries across the country, the Minneapolis facility attempts to combine the reach and unlimited access of the Web with the depth and context that comes from books and other traditional resources. Libraries today are not book repositories, if they ever were, but depots for knowledge and self-learning.

"Focus groups show that the principal asset of libraries is trust, perhaps more so in a Digital Age," says Daniel Atkins, a professor of information and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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The new downtown central library is as provocative in design as some of the changes are among the stacks. No stuffy Greek columns here. Architect Cesar Pelli has created a post-modern building that uses blond wood and steel framing with geometry-defying angles. One plane juts out obliquely from the top of the building. Eventually a planned planetarium will rise from the roof that resembles the robot R2D2.

Mr. Pelli, known for his technically advanced designs, has created a building with no interior loadbearing walls and vast amounts of glass. Many of the windows are etched with patterns designed to evoke Minnesota white birch.

On the inside, walkways bridge the sections on each floor - not unlike this city's ubiquitous skywalks - from which patrons can see into any area of the library. It feels like the architectural equivalent of a website "entry page." Open stacks fill nearly the entire library, a contrast to the previous building in which 85 percent of the collection was underground and accessed by an antiquated pneumatic tube system.

The library sits imposingly at the end of the Nicollet Mall, the famed downtown pedestrian thoroughfare. Opening officially on May 20, it was financed with $110 million in voter-approved public funds, supplemented by $15 million in private money. That Minneapolis should be building a premier library perhaps isn't surprising. It frequently ranks among the most "literate" cities in the nation. Yet, even here, funding for books is finite: The city, like many others, has faced library budget cuts in recent years.

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One of the first things you notice on a tour of the new facility, as I did on a recent aluminum-gray day, is how technology is transforming today's libraries. Start with the wooden card catalog, which doesn't exist here anymore, except for one kept in the special collections department. It now looks like a quaint museum piece.

To find a book, visitors call up an electronic card catalogue. After deciding what they want, they can use a touch-screen to pull up a map pinpointing where the book is located. To check it out, they insert their library card in a self-service machine, which then scans a bar code on the book. If there are no "blocks" on their card - such as for an overdue book - they get a receipt with a due date.

"Absolutely everything is changing," says Katherine Hadley, MPL director.

All this self-service frees up librarians from their traditional duties of sitting behind a desk, processing books, and preserving silence. Instead, they will roam among the stacks, communicating (no doubt softly) on their Captain Kirk badges. The traditional librarian has transformed into a Knowledge Age "guide," helping patrons navigate the Internet, CDs, audiobooks, printed books, research tomes, and the myriad other resources that make up today's libraries. As Betsy Williams, the MPL's director of collections and technical services, puts it: The emphasis on self-service "allows librarians to address more complicated issues."

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A chief tool of the new library will be what Ms. Hadley calls the "learning commons." That refers, in part, to clusters of computers on each floor where users can do their own online research or collaborate with others. While the learning-commons concept is spreading in academic libraries, the MPL is tailoring the idea to local needs. Print and online resources will be grouped together to help people with specific topics, such as starting a business, prescription drug plans, and student loans. Some of the materials will be aimed at serving local immigrant communities - notably the Hmong, Hispanics, and Somalis.

"Libraries have historically been at the forefront of information to help people become citizens," says Martín Gómez, president of the Urban Libraries Council.

The hope, too, according to Hadley, is that the library will help close the "digital divide" - aiding those who don't have the Internet at home or the skills to navigate it.

The MPL would like to attract more young people as well. To achieve this, administrators created a teen advisory council and polled youngsters to discover what they want. The result is Teen Central - a room that looks more hipster lounge than library. It is paneled in edgy red-and-black Japanese ash and features low-scalloped bookcases that evoke the Rat Pack era. Teens can put up their own paintings or poetry on moveable "art walls." They can check out not just books but laptops to download music.

"Older" people will no doubt enjoy new amenities at the library, too. Each floor will have chairs and gas fireplaces where patrons can curl up and actually ... read.

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