I am a huge fan of the Austin Public Library. I am constantly surprised at the breadth of its collection and the reach of its branches. A new central building is being designed amidst a time of great upheaval in the economy, the delivery of content, higher education, and public facilities. There are anecdotes of library systems out there where DVDs are the main circulation item. So as the cliche goes, the new building represents APL’s efforts to take advantage of the opportunity instead of getting swallowed by the crisis.
The design of the new central building is coming before the City Council sometime in February. The design will have implications for the program available, as well as clues to APL’s strategy going forward. Here is APL’s latest strategic plan. As the Council reviews the design, here are four issues they should make sure to cover.
1. ACC. The community college is persistently growing, and if the US is indeed in for an era of skill upgrades, ACC is going to be at the heart of the region’s human capital strategy. APL’s space, web tools, and its collection should aim to integrate with ACC’s needs (i.e. collaborative work space for students, a collection that shifts more towards the reference texts and online resources). I can assure you that if APL put these resources out for cash-strapped, nimble students, they would boost their circulation-per-dollar and per-capita massively. If ACC shows up to support the design during the public testimony, we know that APL and the community college are working together to leverage each other’s resources. If not, then there is potentially a missed opportunity.
2. Collaborative workspace. The local market is creating co-working spaces, like Austin’s Conjuctured. The stereotype of the professional workspace as some big office just simply isn’t the case, and it probably won’t be going forward whether because of the rise in price of carbon fuels, a brake up of big firms into smaller, flexible contracting niches, or a trend towards tele-commuting as employees push for work life balance. Further, Austin is firmly committed to propelling small business and entrepreneurship. The first thing many people need is a decent ad hoc space for planning, meeting, and working. APL can help fill these needs. The design has ample, wired, well-lit rooms that facilitate individual and team work sessions.
3. Digital divide. For Austin’s most economically marginal residents, the library is the frontline of closing the digital divide. If the design doesn’t have substantial space for public computers, then it’s not serious about playing its part in bridging the divide.
4. Little kids. The library is a key amenity for parents. Personally, I think this reflects our failure to appropriately invest in 0-5 year-old education, enrichment, and cultural amenities. I’d prefer that APL be able to focus on its knowledge repository and workforce support tasks, but the scarcity of American investment in kid amenities means we cram this function into the local library. Hopefully, the design will include teaching rooms and child-focused performance spaces.