Save the Branch Libraries

An Ian Donnis article in this week’s Providence Phoenix discusses the troubled-looking future of the Providence Public Library…

Almost two years after the [Providence Public Library] set off a public furor by axing 21 jobs and reducing hours at the downtown Central Library, a far more sweeping proposed reduction — to shut six of 10 library branches and cut staff to make up for a $900,000 deficit — has ignited another impassioned response.
Might Providence be willing to consider an innovative way to save its library system? Sunday’s Boston Globe had an article on a new concept for public libraries being tried in London. The concept is that of the “idea store”…
Broadly speaking, Idea Stores are not actually stores-that is to say, the books are still free, and so is the Internet access. But these 21st-century libraries do take a retail approach to aspects of design, promotion, and even financing. Patrons won’t find librarians at an Idea Store, but rather ”idea supervisors,” who wear uniforms of black polo shirts, as do their staff…
And if the wide aisles, cheerful banners, and in-store cafes remind visitors of a British supermarket franchise, all the better, since all seven of the planned Idea Stores will be situated next to-or, in a couple of cases, inside-major shopping centers for the convenience of the busy patron. Wall-mounted flatscreens advertise aromatherapy workshops at the brand-new Idea Store in Canary Wharf, which is nestled in a massive mall complex…
The juxtaposition is apt, because in terms of funding, the Idea Stores aren’t quite as public as the libraries they’re replacing. The money comes from a combination of local council funds, national lottery money, charitable donations, proceeds from the sale of former library buildings, and corporate partners such as Sainsbury’s and Lloyds of London. According to Wills, ”Government funding will not become a thing of the past, but we are confident that we can increase the proportion of funding from nongovernment sources.”
Yes, the name is gimmicky. And I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that the PPL should immediately embrace the entirety of the idea store concept. (And I don’t think that the steel-and-glass Borg cube pictured in the Globe article would be a good fit for Providence. I suspect I can find at least one Projo architecture columnist who will agree with me on this). Still, in small doses, the idea store idea might be relevant to the problem of refurbishing the Providence library system.
At a traditional library, much of the physical infrastructure exists to house the stacks. But if a multi-library system makes a commitment to circulating materials from the main collection via “innovative delivery methods” (a phrase used in the Phoenix article), then there is no need to use the branches as storage. The system can focus its energies on building a single, comprehensive collection of books and less-popular periodicals that are circulated through the branches. The exception to this is the children’s section; a children’s section should still be maintained at each branch to encourage children and their parents to visit the library.
Freed from the requirement of having to store a large physical volume of books, the branches can either move to smaller, easier-to-maintain locations, or they can convert the freed-up space at existing locations into community, meeting, and electronic access facilities. The non-traditional idea store concepts can be explored in the new community spaces, while a traditional library governing structure remains in place to manage circulation, reference, and the buying of books and periodicals.
The libraries should implement hours that are consistent across the system and from day-to-day. When people can’t remember if today is the day that the library is open from 9-to-5 or 12-to-8, they are discouraged from dropping in. Finally, the system should increase the volume of on-site reference and electronic resources available at each branch and build a reputation as the place to go to find information that can’t be easily found anywhere else.
With an little innovative thinking, there is no reason that a public library can’t be a place as vibrant as a Starbuck’s or a Borders Cafe.
(One other periphal note, addressed to the Phoenix’s online editors: could you please do something on your re-designed web page that makes current Providence news stories easier to find).

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