It's 4 p.m. on a Tuesday at the Goodman South Madison library on Park Street, and the brightly lit community room is packed with teenagers. A seated pair aim Wii controllers at the jumbo screen on the back wall, leaning to and fro in the synchronized sway of gamers everywhere. Another four sit focused in front of laptops, headsets firmly in place, pulling swigs on bottles of water or soda. Several are exchanging henna tattoos, and another handful are repurposing old cassette mixtapes into wallets. It's as loud as you'd expect. Certainly louder than you'd expect at the library.
"Literacy isn't just books," says librarian Jesse Vieau, as he floats from group to group, pointing out the written words on the computers, on the role-playing videogames, on the craft instructions. "We're taking a more active approach in how we can spread literacy and how we can pump people up, especially kids, to start realizing that libraries aren't just old ladies with glasses always shushing everybody," adds Vieau, who directs the Every Tuesday teen program.
The program and Vieau himself represent the evolving nature of libraries, a system that's undergone dramatic changes as it tries to keep ahead of not only the technology curve, but evolving expectations about the role libraries play in the larger community. No longer just places for quiet reading, libraries are the new proverbial town square. Redesigned branches such as Sequoya, Goodman South and Alicia Ashman are made to feel more like cozy coffeeshops or living rooms, and they're strategically located in high-traffic areas near or in shopping malls.
The new Central Library, slated to open in September 2013, will total 119,200 square feet, but collections are dropping from 410,000 to 360,000, with the elimination of 8,947 books-on-cassette, 8,432 VHS tapes and old magazines. Meanwhile, public meeting space within the facility is increasing from 42.7% to 64.3%, and staff offices will be cut in half. In short, less space is needed for materials and more space is needed for patrons and ideas.
"We house all these resources in the library and in our digital content, but what about the people resources?" says Vieau. "We're looking at the human talent as another resource."
One in six Americans now owns an e-reader, so the demand for e-books has skyrocketed. More than 75% of Madison residents have a library card, and Madison patrons are projected to check out 41,798 e-books in 2012. While still just 1% of total circulation, which hovers around 4 million, e-book usage grew 681% from 2010 to 2011 and this year is expected to increase another 127%. In the South Central Library System, a consortium of 50-plus regional libraries, total e-book and audio book checkouts are projected to be 194,002 this year.
"I think a lot of people think about this kind of static concept of a building full of books," says Greg Mickells, director of the Madison Public Library. "And it's going to take a while for them to get used to [the notion] that it's just not that type of space any longer."
In no other branch will the changing face of libraries be more evident than at the long-awaited renovated Central Library (PDF). Floor plans show a bustling ground level, including a coffee kiosk, copy center and Friends of the Library used bookshop. The building is designed to flow from social to solitary, getting quieter as you head upward. The window-lined second level will house periodicals and nonfiction, and the third floor will host a reading room, auditorium and art gallery.
"It's going to be a beautiful space," says Jenni Collins, executive director of Madison Public Library Foundation, the library's private fundraising arm. "And if you're the type of person who is looking for that quiet reading experience, that is absolutely still part of the experience."
But public meeting spaces are everywhere, with built-in flexibility to accommodate as much variety as possible. There will be movable shelves, larger sinks, and breakaway floors that house wiring and infrastructure to allow the library to evolve in ways not yet imagined.
One of the most unexpected roles the Central Library hopes to take on is that of a makerspace, also referred to as a hackerspace. These are essentially community open labs where patrons can stop in and work on just about any kind of technological, artisan or craft project imaginable. Plans are in the works to partner with Sector67, a makerspace on Winnebago Street, to bring the hacker concept to the library in a portable manner on a regular basis. Area quiltmakers, animators, welders, printmakers, brewmasters and other experts will bring in their wares and introduce them to interested patrons through workshops, day classes or lectures. The library doesn't have to invest in permanent equipment, and those whose interest is sufficiently piqued can go back out into the community and seek more of what they learned.
"It's not just a place to go to get stuff, but a place where they can come and contribute," says Mickells. "To offer their talents for the entire community, that's where the transition is happening with the library. It's not that we're just being providers; we're providing opportunities for others in the community to provide the content that we can share throughout the city."
Paper versus e-books is a controversial topic in some circles, and it might even be a microcosm for the bigger library debate. But Mickells says the new library is as devoted to traditionalists as ever.
"If you talk to a lot of e-book readers, they're kind of switch-hitters, you could say. I'm a prime example of that - I still read a lot of print," says Mickells.
Mickells says libraries are trying to offer more diversity and grab the attention of people who might not otherwise have engaged at all.
"They might not come in necessarily to say, 'I'm going to check out a book,'" says Mickells. "But once they get comfortable with the space, once they get to know staff, we might be having a program like a poetry slam or something, and then all of a sudden you'd be surprised how many of them say, 'Well, do you have a book about this?'"
It certainly worked that way for Vieau, who has undergone his own evolution.
"I finished one book in high school," says Vieau, who earned his master's of library science degree in 2007, is now married to an English teacher and reads at least 100 books a year for his job acquiring teen collections. "I didn't read until college because it was uncool in my friend circle. Now, last night I started a book at 9 p.m. and couldn't fall asleep until I was done, you know?"
For Mickells, who earned his master's degree in library science nearly two decades before Vieau, the changing nature of libraries is what keeps his job interesting.
"I'm just as excited now as I was back then about what libraries have to offer," says Mickells. "The new space is designed to be a magnet for the entire community."