As a tourist, travelling in Singapore with at least three mobile devices is easy. I could logon to the Internet in most enclosed spaces via ‘Wireless@SG.
Wireless@SG is Singapore’s largest free Wi-Fi network. It is available in most metro stations, shopping malls, and public libraries. As a tourist, I launched the sign-in page, keyed in my mobile number, and entered the CAPTCHA code that was sent to my phone. Residents can download the Wireless@SG app for easy connection to free wifi.
So what are the ambitions behind free Internet?
Singapore is fast becoming a Smart Nation. It’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to have a Digital Government with online services and processes that are simpler and easier to use, and more services on mobile devices. Public services are ‘harnessing the power of networks, data, and infocommunication technologies […] to support better living, stronger communities, and create more opportunities, for all’ (Singapore Smart Nation).
Public libraries are at the forefront of this shift from analogue to digital. They are promoting Smart Citizenship through a number of measures, which includes taking away the staff counter. This is an exceptional move on the part of the National Library Board. Whilst the needs of users have changed over the last fifteen years, the library staff have often been slow to embrace new ways of interacting with customers. So, the NLB are ahead of the game.
Instead of a counter, or ‘reception desk’, where staff would traditionally deal with reference and collection enquiries, the National Library Board has introduced a Digital Concierge Library Guide for new visitors. It’s like a self-help desk. The library users can ask questions by clicking on the appropriate buttons on the website, and they can fill in an online form to provide feedback about the service.
If a customer needs to speak to a person, then there are staff on hand to help, wearing t-shirts marked ‘Ask a Librarian’. In staff-less libraries, such as Chinatown Library, which is managed by volunteers, there is a Cybrarian on hand to deal with customer queries. What is a Cybrarian? It is a library and information science professional that specializes in using the Internet as a resource tool. In this case, the term is used to describe a librarian who can be accessed via the Internet.
Most public libraries also have e-kiosks, digital information systems, which consist of different input components (such as touch screen, keyboard) and output components (screen). They are used for self-check out. Customers can also check out books using their National Library Board mobile app. All users have to do is focus the camera on the barcode to scan it. Customers can also borrow eBooks using the mobile app to read on their phones.
The interactive digital displays that have been installed in more popular public libraries like Sengkang and Bukit Panjang display the eBooks that customers can borrow from the public library. There is also a video wall that ‘signals’ the digital based services of the library, and gives updates on content and services.
How will digital technology affect the service and spaces in the future?
Artificial intelligence will no doubt bring further changes to the public library in the future. Librarians, who are currently responsible for curating the physical objects on the shelves and the digital displays, will no longer have to curate the content, which will no doubt organize itself. As staff get a better feel for the needs of their users, so they will be able to create algorithms to automate the curation process.
But, there are barriers to this new world of autonomy achieved through seamless information access. Staff cannot routinely collect personal information that they will need to make decisions about user preferences, interests, and values and organize new content. Singapore introduced a new comprehensive “European-style” Personal Data Protection Act in 2014. It is already handing down its first fines under the new law.
There are economic motives informing the new law. Singapore believes there is a link between the implementation of data privacy regulation and its national ambitions to be a leading high tech hub.
I’ve just visited Calgary University’s Taylor Family Digital Library. This state of the art library was completed in 2010, incorporating the latest digital technology, as well as RFID technology.
It has the largest retro gaming collection in Canada. The ‘digital media commons’ has suites for editing, shooting film, animation 3-D rendering, and sound. There is a ‘sandbox’ that includes a large touch table and digital globe on which students can project their research on anything from immigration patterns to climate change and ocean currents and musical influences. There library also has a special visualization room on the 4th floor that allows professional research to be displayed in detail on a floor-to-ceiling high resolution screen with surround sound. There are screens above the reference desk show visitors how many people are using the library at one time and how many people are using our digital collections at any given time.
‘We see digital humanities as the next big trend’, Claudette Cloutier explains as she shows me around the library. The library currently has some facilities to support this growing interest in an area of research and teaching at the intersection of computing and the humanities. In addition to supporting students and faculty interested in digital humanities, the library helps graduates and faculty manage their user identity, which involves showing them how to promote themselves online during their academic careers.
But, it does not have everything the students and faculty might need as it’s difficult to keep up, Claudette explains.
The library has 29 collaborative workrooms with large wall-mounted flat screens; these sit between four and eight people. There are six larger practice rooms – for presentations, hosting a seminar, or even chatting on skype. The practice rooms have ceiling-mounted cameras allow students to playback their presentations to review their performance. Students book rooms via touch-screens located on every floor. The library also has open collaborative spaces on the 2nd and 3rd floors – these collaborative areas have mobile furniture and white boards.
Since the furniture is not fixed to the ground the students move chairs and tables around the new library. This means that the library will never look neat and tidy. And, it is noisy. ‘Even if the tables have separations on them… they want to sit together. They want physical closeness’. ‘When our 4th floor was originally designed, we had bar seating, but it meant that students were very loud … even though we designated it as quiet study floor’, Claudette continues.
So, when the librarians had the option of adding 300 seats, so that the total number of seats was 1900, they installed study carrels. They also replaced some soft furnishing with furniture that supported individual study instead of collaboration. As you walk out of the lifts on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors, now, rather than seeing a swathe of soft furnishing, you see a bank of small partitioned desks.
And, it is quiet.
Calgary is going to get a new central library in 2018. CEO, Bill Ptacek, has been thinking about the new library in terms of what he feels is lacking in the current library.
Many of his suggestions for the new library come from thinking about retail. In retail, ‘merchandise’ is displayed to attract customers into the building. So, for example, his suggestion would be to put the ‘hold’ books at the back of the building, where the bread and eggs would sit in a shop, so that customers have to walk through it in order to get to them. The idea, of course, is that a patron entering the library to pick up a ‘hold’ might be tempted to browse all the other books on the shelves on the way.
Nevertheless, a patron’s path to the ‘hold’ should not be complicated. In Bill’s opinion, a library should be constructed in such a way that patrons know their options as soon as they come in the entrance, and they can navigate their way through it with ease. This does not mean bombarding the patron with signs to the nearest exist. It means constructing the library so that as many of its services and settings are visible to the patron at all times. So, as soon as a patron comes in the entrance, they can see all their options. As Bill explains:
‘We really are a lot of things we would use in retail need to be incorporated into the library. When someone comes into the library there is a path they take….There is what we call a patron path. That is the way that patrons orientate themselves. Don’t block it… don’t put a load of information in the first few metres of the vestibule because they won’t read it’.
As he continued, if patrons know how to navigate the building themselves, then they do not need to ask a librarian for help, and this ultimately means they have more responsibility for their own journey through the building. It’s about designing a library that patrons find they can intuitively navigate.
So the new central library is designed to be as open as possible. Ellen Humphrey, Deputy CEO, reinforces what Bill has said:
‘A patron might not know what is on the fourth floor, but they can see it. It’s about ease of navigation. But, it is also about … it’s about the patron being able to figure it out. So the patron feels like the ‘place was built for me’. So they feel like they belong here’.
So, way-finding is not about signage. The signage will be there to nudge them in the right direction. Ellen still has some of the way-finding budget left to put up some signs after opening day. ‘We are trying to be flexible’, Ellen continues. But, Bill ends with a final comment: ‘If we have to explain in great detail how the building works [with signs] then we have probably failed’.
Calgary is known for its association with the oil industry. Many of the high rise buildings in the city are occupied by oil workers. Its central public library is a destination for 120,000 people who drive to Calgary to work every day. But, similar to other downtown libraries, it does not currently serve any specific community. Maybe this will change when the central library moves from its current location on 7th Avenue to East Village – an area that is currently being regenerated. Calgary is getting a new central library, designed by Snohetta and DIALOG, which will be completed in 2018.
To compliment this new development, Bill Ptacek, Calgary Public Library CEO, has agreed to fund the refurbishment of most (if not) of Calgary’s branch libraries. This is to ensure CPL patrons have a decent community spaces in which to study, work and play – as well as a new central library to visit in East Village. As part of this refurbishment, one of the areas library workers are focusing on is the lighting. Many of the branch libraries are badly lit, with poor artificial lighting, and few windows.
Many of the people I have spoken to have commented on the quality of the lighting in their library. Associate Director at James B. Hunt Jr. Library at North Carolina State University stated that lighting is one of the most important design features to consider in a library. When designing the Hunt Library, he had worked with the architects, Snohetta and DEWG, to ensure that the lighting was as effective for the students. Lighting also creates atmosphere, so it is a way of providing students with different working environments, without changing the tables and chairs. Indeed, Hunt Library has a range of general, task, and ambient lighting to create different atmospheres. And, of course, the building was designed to maximise the amount of daylight entering the space that students can enjoy on all floors.
In Calgary, the library workers I spent time with have begun to add LED strip lighting to the shelves. This is a way of illuminating the book spines so that patrons can see them but it also a way of generally make the books appear more attractive. The strip lighting draws your eye to the title on the shelf… and like any good marketing technique it lures you in. Elsewhere, the library workers have replaced ineffective lamps in the high ceilings with LED lights that drop into the space adding a permanent glow over the reading areas. Patrons have yet to get used to some of these light fittings as they are unexpectedly bright – albeit very effective.
According to the library workers I have met over the last few weeks, left to their own devices, architects continue to prioritise form over function when it comes to lighting. This is a real problem in spaces which are designed to prioritise function over form - such as libraries.
Architects are concerned with designing buildings that are ‘socially sustainable’. (They do not want to have one of their buildings demolished ten years after it was built.) But, what does social sustainability mean?
There are various ways of interpreting social sustainability. In some circles it is understood as what is in the interests of the community. In Designing for Social Sustainability, Saffron Woodall, writing about housing developments explains:
‘New developments need to be well planned to ensure that basic amenities and a robust social infrastructure are in place … However, many of the aspects cannot be planned in advance … Rather, master plans need to allow for a degree of ambiguity, uncertainty and openness to change, recognising that a new community will develop best if it is allowed to be dynamic and to evolve in ways that the planners cannot entirely predict’.
More space = space for growth.
Space is naturally being made available in public libraries. There has been a reduction in a number of books on the shelves and a reduction in the number of fixed desk-top computers which means that librarians have more space. What are they doing with it? They are handing this space over to their patrons. Librarians are doubling the number of chairs and desks for adults who may want to work in the library.
The librarians with whom I spoke anticipate that patrons will need more space over the coming years. So, librarians are requesting that this ‘spare’ space is included when architects design new public libraries, in anticipation of this growing demand for more space for their patrons.
In Calgary’s new central library, Snohetta and DIALOG have resolved this need for more space, not by including additional space, but by creating adaptable areas. As Ellen Humphry, Deputy CEO explained:
‘Even the behind the scenes workspace are designed in such a way that they can be transformed into public spaces if we wanted to move all the back of house activities out of the building. So, that was our expansion strategy, rather than build more space that wasn’t occupied we decided to design the behind the scenes workspace so they can be vacated’.
The carpet colour is the same back and front to indicate a seamless connection between the two. ‘It’s a visable manifestation of the idea we had’, explains Ellen. There are also no load baring walls in the back of house areas.
Librarians have no idea what services and spaces patrons will need in the future. It is by ensuring their space is adaptable, then, that they will remain socially sustainable.
The maker movement is hard to define. The library workers I spoke to over the last few weeks describe it in different ways. One young teen librarian in Chicago stated:
'It's a buzzword right now... I'm from a video development background so my idea of a Makerspace is the original name. It's like a club people would go to after work or during the weekend, and they would devote a great portion of the day to advance their skill to STEM, such as coding, engineering, or LED object. The Silicon startup valley, a lot of those ideas come from Makerspaces, it's people who are devoted to their craft'.
In Vancouver Public Library, the maker movement is being associated with the craft of making stories. The central library, designed by Moshe Safdie and DA Architects, and completed in 1995, has developed a programme that enables patrons of all generations to record and share their own experiences. The circulation services manager who showed me around stated:
'One of the things, looking forward, is we’re really looking at the hyper-local as an area where we can really focus on ... and own. There is a lot of information of course that is widely available on anyone and everything … when we looking at Vancouver specific things, creating our own story, creating our own identity, that is something that the Vancouver Public Library can really focus on our showcasing that. It would be something that we would have that other libraries would not have'.
In May 2015, the library installed an ‘Inspiration Lab’ on the third floor. This is a space for patrons to record their stories through audio and visual methods. It indicates the evolving way in which stories are created, stored, and accessed. 'We get all sorts of people coming here ... not just young people. We are doing programmes to encourage people to record their own stories. So, bring in your grandparents, hear about their immigration journey. It's a very popular space', explains the circulation services manager.
As well as recording new material, the library provides facilities for accessing old material. The 'conversion stations' in the library are for converting analogue to digital. Those who have a whole load of video camera tape, but nothing to play it on can now convert into a format that they can use. The library is also looking for ways to convert digital to digital. The library workers I spoke to anticipate a future need to transfer the contents of a floppy disk to the cloud.
Next to the 'conversion stations' are computers on which patrons can self-publish and edit their own written material. There are already several 'zines' on the shelves in the library addressing hard-hitting issues - sexuality, race, and gender. As the circulation services manager explains, ‘We’re still very strongly branded by the book. And there is a lot of interest in that, so we’re really looking at how can we support self-publishing? How do we engage with this and bring it into our collections?’
The library will be creating an area in which to display the 'Vancouver Stories' on the 8th floor, currently being renovated, due to open in 2018. The contemporary stories will sit alongside historic stories in the special collection, which will be moving up to the 8th floor, providing patrons with a detailed history of the Pacific Northwest.
What should a public library look like?
I spent the last day in Seattle at one of Seattle’s Carnegie libraries. This particular library, West Seattle Public Library, was built in 1910. The spaces in this library are being ‘reimagined’ to reflect new occupancy patterns – but it is difficult to reimagine the spaces as their size and shape is already determined by fixed wooden partitions that break up the floor area. The is a building on the National Register of Historic Places. The reimagining will have to be done with these partitions in place.
The public library has evolved since Andrew Carnegie donated $220,000 to Seattle to rebuild it. The Carnegie library was based on a particular idea of a library. A library was a place where there where books along the walls; it was a place where there were formal tables and chairs in the centre of the room on which there were traditional lamps. The manager of another branch, Rainier Beach Public Library, explained to me that ‘print material has exploded in our professional lives’. There is more print material available; and patrons want access to it all. So, the library has slowly become a place for storing this print material. The OMA + LMN Seattle Central Library was designed to store print material - which is why four floors are dedicated to holding print material on open shelves that are fixed to the concrete floors.
The Internet has taken pressure off somewhat – but people continue to want access to books as well as online material. At the moment library workers are having to make way for books and people. People come into the space looking for somewhere to sit, read, work, and a plug to use. The manager of Rainier Beach Public Library continued:
‘My favourite part of our reimaging my library is that it puts people in the centre of the space. You see people and activities when you walk in; it’s not that we don’t treasure our collection. Our collection is one of our core services. But we need to make our collections more subtle. It doesn’t need to be in the centre. So the redesign has opened everything up so much – everyone and everywhere is much more visible’.
Libraries have weeded their collections as much as possible to make more space for people. Librarians carefully analyse circulation data to decide what to keep and what to discard. The manager stated, ‘You have to critically look at your collection based on your own usage. So we’ve analysed the data a lot – we have no problem reducing some collections’. But, there is only so much weeding that can be done – there are still plenty of books to store.
Should public libraries store their collection onsite on open stacks? Is a good use of real estate? Seattle Public Library currently stores all its books in the central and branch libraries – which almost act as storehouses. It would be easy to set up a system for ordering books from an offsite store similar to the system that is in place at the moment – where patrons have access to books throughout the library system which they have delivered to their nearest library. What should a library look like? Should it contain books or people? Do librarians need to decide?
The librarians I spoke to were reluctant to remove all the open stacks. In light of the increasing need for patron seating, then, library workers might have to begin to think about reducing their back of house areas. Is there scope for reducing the size of staff offices to create space for people in the front of house areas? This would encourage librarians to step out from behind their desks to participate with patrons… another growing trend.
Seattle is changing rapidly. The hi-tech sector has flourished here, which means the city is filling up with 20-plus males, many of them on high salaries. SPL has two challenges; how to accommodate the growing population of hi-tech workers in its central and branch libraries; and how to support others who use its services in a city where there is growing socio-economic diversity .
Equality or equity?
SPL is using an 'equity model' to gain a better understanding of where to focus its attention around the delivery and development of its services. This is quite a new way of thinking about service delivery. The equity model focuses on the outcomes and experiences. One regional manager explained what ‘equity’ meant in a really simple way:
‘If you have three people, different heights, and they are all trying to watch a baseball game over a fence …one person is four feet high, one is five feet high, one is six feet high, and the fence is seven feet high… with the equity model, you give the four feet tall person the four foot stool, you give the five foot person the three foot stool, you give the six foot person the two foot stool. You give them what they need so they have the same outcome.’
You give them what they need to have the same outcome.
This is different from the ‘equality model' – the model that SPL did use. The regional manager explained:
‘With the equality model, the guys are given the same two-foot stool. The guy who is six feel high is happy, but the other two are not happy’.
SPL is using data to drive its decisions over where to focus its attention in the coming years. It collects all kinds of data: a library can track the numbers of people coming in and out of a building (by day and by hour); it can track programme attendance; it can track the use of computers when people logon; it can track people’s use of wifi. It also holds circulation statistics.
It also doing what it calls ‘community listening’. This is where librarians interview individuals and organizations to find out their stories. They are interested in providing services for those who currently use the library but also in finding out why people do not use its services – what are the barriers to visiting the library?
This provides the background to how SPL is making decisions over where and how to develop its spaces; it is currently ‘re-imagining’ some of them. For example, Northeast Public Library was extended in 2004, and the original building was redesigned in 2013 to create an environment where children and caregivers can more easily interact. I visited Capitol Hill Public Library this morning. This is an area with a large LGBTQ community. The numbers in this community have dropped since the hip area has attracted property developers, pushing up the price of housing, but the branch library continues to support diversity. The library replaced its carpet, and at the same time reconfigured the area near the entrance, increasing visibility and flexibility throughout the space. As the regional manager explained:
‘We eliminated to separate desks; we consolidated the services on those two separate desks … the librarian and the library associate can now support each other. It’s much more flexible now. We moved all of the fixed shelves in this one area; we replaced them with shelves which were a lot smaller and lower, which immediately opened things up so that the staff could see the patrons and so that the staff were visible to the patrons.’
How does SPL decide where to focus its attention? In providing some groups with the services and spaces they need, increasing the size of the children’s area, for example, or in providing basic facilities for individuals who seek warmth and shelter and basic amenities, it will be responding to the new hi-tech residents of Seattle in its own unique way.
“We can’t remain too attached to a plan, we need to remain flexible”
It’s my second day in Seattle. Today, I visited Northeast Public Library, one of twenty-seven branch libraries distributed in neighbourhoods across the city. Northeast Public Library is in quiet residential area – it is the second most popular branch library (by footfall) and the first most popular (by circulation).
It was built in 1950s, as part of a second wave of growth of the SPL network, and extended in 2004 as part of the ‘Libraries for All’ initiative. Today, it is being ‘re-imagined’ as part of a broader programme to design more effective public spaces. It has recently condensed its circulation and collections desk into one single reception point in order to double the size of its children’s area. The five year olds who currently use the children’s area will eventually grow up so they will want a more sophisticated teenage section to use. The neighbourhood is also rapidly expanding – because people are moving out of the city centre in search for affordable housing. So, there will be increasing pressure on the library to adapt to these known changes, as well as the unknown changes that wait around the corner. This is the first step in a longer process of transformation, explains the branch librarian.
Whilst the branch librarian – and her colleagues - are open to changing their spaces (and their own practices) to reflect changing needs of their patrons… their building is perhaps a little less adaptable. Northeast Public Library has concrete flooring, which means is difficult to reroute electrical wiring to add more plug sockets in the reworked spaces. During the first phase of re-imagining, the library was closed for a week so that builders could drill holes in the concrete flooring... It seems that re-imagining is not simply about changing library services and spaces but also about changing the infrastructure of a building.
Indeed, many of the library buildings I have visited in Seattle have been designed with a particular purpose in mind, which means they are difficult to adapt to contemporary needs. The central library, designed by the well-known architects OMA, completed in 2004, no longer meets the needs of its patrons. Yet it cannot be easily adapted. The open books stacks in the ‘spiral’ on floors six to nine are ‘glued’ into position on the concrete floors which means they cannot be rolled around, pushed away, turned side-ways in response to how patrons want to use the building– which is ironic as this building was designed to challenge the central role of the book.
The library is still about the book. As library workers have explained to me, despite the availability of ebooks, patrons want to have access to books. The architects simply did not anticipate that patrons would engage with books in more interesting ways....
Chicago Public Library (CPL) caters for a wide range of people across the city. This creates a wide spectrum of needs that explains why it is a custodian of an extensive digital and physical collection.
The digital divide is huge. The Chicago Public Library has been lending out hotspots that provide 24/7 internet access for three weeks. This introduces its patrons to the concept of having the internet at home ... without making a financial commitment. The library workers with whom I spent time hope that this entices people to install it in their homes on a permanent basis.
As the Director of Engagement and Special Projects explained, ‘digital access is increasing but circulation of books is not decreasing, it’s actually increasing’. ‘The pressure to keep the book is enormous – people who are “hard core” users still want best sellers, and they want them now’. CPL patrons want to borrow the latest publication by their favourite author. They also want to be able to read the book online; they not only expect the library collection to be up-to-date, but they expect the library to make it available in physical and digital form.
CPL patrons want online and physical books; librarians can’t really predict when patrons will what one rather than the other. Librarians sometimes use government data to anticipate the needs of their patrons. The City of Chicago now provides access to its data via a portal to encourage innovation and development across its community. The site hosts over 200 datasets about government departments, services, facilities, and performance. But, the data does not always help library staff resolve why people use the library. What does the data actually mean? It’s important to supplement the data with feedback from the users through design-thinking methods.
More recently, library staff and CPL have been using what is known as ‘human-centred design’ to work through new initiatives with their patrons, and implement these initiatives on a case-by-case basis.
CPL worked with IDEO, funded by the Gates Foundation, to devise what has become known as the ‘library tool kit’. As Diane explained, IDEO did not realise that librarians consider ‘research’ to be about books, so we developed this tool-kit to introduce librarians to a new kind of research – one that does not involve research papers. Instead, the tool-kit provides a methodology for working with patrons to identify opportunities for the development of services and spaces, and potential solutions to these ‘gaps’. For example: CPL is seeking to attract millenials. it is understanding how games can be introduced to engage adult audiences at its public libraries. As one librarian explained:
"Our project is seeking to understand how game literacy can be leveraged into other educational processes while understanding that adults continue to learn through play, much like children and teens have long been encouraged to do".
Once a year, it holds a mini-con event called 'International Games Day', featuring both board games and video games. it has a special interest in inviting local developers to introduce its games to an audience, as well as provide expertise on how they might be able to design a game. It has local indie game developers involved as well to make the day more interesting to adults. The event is designed for adults so the vast majority of the participants are millennials. However, the event did appeal to people of all ages, which suggests that the new service would resonate with its patrons.
The library staff particularly like the ethos of collaborative research. Human-centred design is a way of getting everyone involved – from the clerk to the commissioner – which spreads the feeling of ownership of the libraries services and spaces. Everyone becomes the owner of a new initiative – and they can see it grow and develop. What learning for UK libraries?