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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Library Rebooted

Not surprisingly, it is the community library that is finding it easier to demonstrate its relevance in the age of the Internet. To see why, one need look no further than the Bronx Library Center, a three-year-old branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL).

Near the entrance are shelves holding DVDs and CDs. Shopping baskets — the kind you’d pick up at the entrance of a supermarket — are stacked on the floor, inviting visitors to carry multiple items. A back wall displays the library’s collection of illustrated novels — the full-length adult comic books that have recently become popular with younger readers. A sign with scrolling red type above the checkout desk advises patrons of the live performances that will be taking place over the next few weeks in the downstairs auditorium; today it features a show by the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, a cultural preservation group. Inside the auditorium, powwow drums thump out their rhythms; most of the 150 seats are filled.

On the library’s four main floors, the stacks of books have been placed at each end, leaving ample space in the middle for tables that have computers on them, many with broadband access to the Internet. The people using the computers are young and aren’t necessarily using them for academic purposes — here is one doing a Google search on Hannah Montana pictures, there is one updating his Facebook page, and over there a few children are playing video games, including The Fight for Glorton. Librarians answer questions and organize online gaming tournaments, and none of them are shushing anyone. The place is packed with people, most of them under the age of 18. They have been drawn by an environment that seems more reminiscent of a community center, Internet café, or bookstore than a library. An observer might quarrel with the library’s de-emphasis of books, but he or she would be wrong to assume no learning is going on here. Kids are reading, exploring, and acquiring knowledge. They’re just not doing it the old-fashioned way.

Clearly, what this branch of the New York Public Library is doing is redefining the business it is in. The Bronx Library Center is no longer just in the book-lending business; rather, it is in the gaming business or the entertainment business or maybe the information connectivity business. And yet, these “loss leaders” (the language of retailing seems appropriate) allow the library to also offer services that are consistent with its civic mission. The high school junior can find SAT and ACT test books. At the career and education center, visitors can learn to write a resume or cover letter, find out about scholarships, or get help applying to college. And the library’s overwhelmingly young audience does take out books, as well as CDs and DVDs — four times the number of these items borrowed at the average New York Public Library branch.

  Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina,
  opened in 2002, offers computer 
  access and a wide range of programs 
  and events.
  Photograph © Sylvain Grandadam/
  The Image Bank

The NYPL isn’t alone in following this approach to maintaining relevance in its branches. Library systems in Los Angeles, Singapore, and Alexandria, Egypt, among others, have likewise added youth centers to drive foot traffic. The Toronto Public Library encourages teens to drop in for online games and music videos on Friday afternoons. The Stanford University library has created an online identity in Second Life, the online “virtual world,” allowing users to explore the library in this popular new medium. The Idea Stores, which the London borough of Tower Hamlets is building in some of its most densely populated neighborhoods, provide Internet access in a country where only about 42 per­cent of the population has Internet access at home. Com­munity libraries might offer a similar benefit in nations such as Italy, Greece, and Turkey, where adult literacy rates are high (99, 98, and 88 percent, respectively) but the vast majority of homes do not have Internet access. In all countries, Internet-connected computers at com­munity libraries offer a bridge across the digital divide to immigrants and those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In a more abstract sense, community libraries also embody a civic virtue, since they remind us of what it means to live in a society that is enlightened and progressive and that values the intellectual en­richment of its citizens. This is good for the users of the libraries, good for the libraries’ communities, and — ultimately — good for the taxpayers who fund the libraries.

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  1. Robert Darnton, “The Library in the New Age,” New York Review of Books, June 12, 2008: Eight reasons libraries are more important than ever. 
  2. Anthony Grafton, “Future Reading,” New Yorker, November 5, 2007: What digitization means for reading and the library.
  3. Miguel Helft and Motoko Rich, “Google Settles Suit over Book-Scanning,” New York Times, October 28, 2008: The impact of Google’s settlement with authors and publishers.
  4. Robin Pogrebin, “A $100 Million Donation to the N.Y. Public Library,” New York Times, March 11, 2008: News story on the charitable gift by financier Stephen Schwarzman.
  5. Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot,” New Yorker, February 5, 2007: Google’s ambitious plan to digitize all the world’s books.
  6. Google Books Library Project Web site: Provides an explanation of how its digitized book site works.
  7. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds.
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