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.
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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."
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.