Northfield’s library expansion: a nicer grocery store or a better kitchen?

library-expansion-faq-sshot Looking at the December 2009 Library Expansion FAQ (PDF) has started me wondering:

To what extent has the plan for the expansion taken into account the need for libraries of the future to function less like grocery stores and more like kitchens?

The metaphor is not mine. See this School Library Journal blog post: Library as domestic metaphor.

Our libraries should not be grocery stores.  We need to use those groceries, to open the boxes, pour the milk,  mix the batter, make a mess. We need production space. We need to serve up our creations in presentation or story space.  We need to inspire masterpieces of all sorts. And we need to guide members of our communities through new library metaphors.

(My route to that post went from someone’s Tweet about Seth Godin’s blog post, The future of the library, which linked to a blog post by a high school librarian titled 2010 which had a comment attached to it that linked to the kitchen/grocery store metaphor blog post.)

Seth Godin wrote:

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

To my knowledge, the library staff has never held any classes on helping citizens become better at using Web 2.0/’kitchen’ tools (content creation and online interaction tools, not information retrieval tools).  We’ve had web forums in Northfield since 1995, blogs since 2003, and in the past year, the local use of Twitter and Facebook has exploded.

Now there may be good reasons why, but more to the point: I don’t see substantive attention (have I missed it?) to this in any of the library’s long-range planning documents.

So with plans on the horizon to finance the construction of the libarary expansion, it’s seems a good time to discuss this.


  1. kiffi summa said:

    There is a division in the public as to what the library of the future will be…
    Our NF library is already well into the future.

    First of all, they have become expert at doing MORE with less, as less public dollars are spread in ever widening circles. People in libraries care deeply about communities, information , and learning. That’s why they’re there; the library is the locus for those points.

    Second, books are not going to go away; e-materials will continue to diversify and proliferate, but Books are not going to go away. A public repository for materials that are free to the public, and not restricted to population segments that can afford to purchase them , is an invaluable resource. Schools continue to have funding problems that focus their resources on essentials; libraries allow a person to take home a book that costs $100.00, and keep it for 6 weeks to explore as if it were their own. That is a ‘gift’ that cannot be evaluated except to say that it is priceless.

    As far as bringing equity to under ‘utilized human capital’… and I use that somewhat offensive gov’t lingo on purpose, to make a point… go into our library and watch who is making heavy use of the computers. There is a preponderance of Latino/Hispanic citizens making excellent use of a library service. This is possibly the most productive, best use/service of e-tech in the public library.

    There’s much more to be said about the wealth of community service a library provides. There is MUCH more to be said for the exceptional quality of management and staff at the Northfield Public Library.

    In my opinion, they should be the highest paid members of our city staff, as they provide the most innovation and service.

    From the most ancient times until today, storytelling has been an integral part of all human societies… often a life shaping or defining experience.

    Regardless of the expanding of all e-technologies, Books , and the people who both read and promote them, are not going to go away, unless our society becomes less ‘human’.

    January 18, 2010
  2. john george said:

    Griff- Let’s HOPE the widespread use of e-materials does not relegate the library to the list of extinct species. We have and still do use the library extensively (Karen more than I, I confess). It was with great pleasure that I curled up on the sofa with my kids and read a book to them, even when they got to the age they could read themselves. I am now beginning to enjoy that with my grandchildren, as they get old enough to pay attention. I challenge anyone to have that type of bonding time with a computer.

    January 19, 2010
  3. David Ludescher said:

    $8.5 million dollars should buy us a bigger store and a better kitchen, neither of which we really need, nor which we can afford. It’s akin to adding onto our house after the kids leave home.

    January 20, 2010
  4. William Siemers said:

    I agree with David L. The need for ‘hard copy’ content will continue to diminish as more and more print media changes to electronic formats. The library should be looking at every possible method of facilitating the delivery of e-books and periodicals to people in their homes rather than planning brick and mortar expansion of a service that fewer and fewer people are going to use.

    That being said, if there is a need to expand space for ‘community service’, then perhaps that should be considered as a seperate issue. It seems to me to make no sense to build space the purpose of which is to house traditional media.

    In any case, as property values continue to fall, and the tax base continues to shrink, it seems imprudent to be planning construction of any but the most essential projects.

    January 20, 2010
  5. Patrick Enders said:

    I think that William’s and David’s posts are on the mark, and as such your original question seems premature.

    I am a big fan of both the library and of actual printed books. However, this is really not a good time to be spending $8 million on building a library expansion. Economic conditions willing, maybe we should ask again in two, three, or four years.

    January 20, 2010
  6. john george said:

    David L.- Just a personal experience with the kids leaving home. Five years ago, Karen and I moved from a house with about 2400 sq. ft. into a house with about 3600 sq, ft. It seemed a little out of proportion, having that much space for us two and the cat. Now, I have 5 kids with 5 spouses and 8 grandchildren. When they show up for holidays and family gatherings, it is really nice to have the space. In regards to the Library, if Northfield is going to stay static in its population, then the wisdom of an expanded Library is questionable. But, if we are indeed going to grow, then we need to respond accordingly.

    January 20, 2010
  7. Jerry Bilek said:

    I believe the first ebook hit the market around 1995. ebooks currently make up about 1% of the book market. the Northfield Public Library had a record year for circulation. Our current library is serving more and more people each year in a space that is too small. that’s a fact that cannot be denied.

    There is plenty of time to discuss what an expanded library will look like and how it can serve the public. I believe spending will not take place for a number of years. Will the economy still be this weak in 3-5 years? I believe it is important to begin the discussion and planning now rather than later.

    The printed book is 500 years old. It has been declared dead many times. Somehow it survives and remains relevant in our society. Our library is 100 years old. It is still important and relevant in our community.

    January 21, 2010
  8. Margit Johnson said:

    Thanks, Griff, for getting this discussion launched. The Northfield Public Library is celebrating the centennial of the original Carnegie Library throughout 2010. In the midst of the festivities and cultural enrichment I look forward to a lively conversation about the role of the library in this community, in the past and well into the future.

    Certainly, part of the discussion will be about early literacy. The public library is the *only* library in town that serves children 0-5 years of age and the only library that serves school-age children during the summer months when they have more time to read virtual and/or real books. A significant part of the proposed expansion (which is on the City’s Capital Improvement Plan in 2014, 5 years from now…) is for much needed space for children’s programs, services and resources to foster literacy skills (reading, digital media, etc. literacy).

    Another part of the discussion will be about a community gathering space, something that the library has historically provided and will continue to offer regardless of where and how people read. Libraries are becoming busier in large cities and small towns, including Northfield, because people need a place to gather that is accessible, open 6-7 days a week, warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and free to people of all ages, income levels, ethnic backgrounds, or religious persuasions.

    The Northfield Public Library’s mission statement is “to strengthen community, support literacy, provide access to information, and foster lifelong learning and enrichment.” This year’s centennial will enable us to talk about what the library can and should be in our future, even as we celebrate its history.

    January 21, 2010
  9. William Siemers said:

    Jerry…It seems that it will only be a matter of time before libraries will offer content for kindles and other e-readers. The licensing problems will be worked out- the pressure will be simply be too great. I suspect that a title will be allowed to be downloaded from a library much as hardcover books are checked out, with reservations and a limit (most likely one) on the number that can be taken at any particular time. Libraries would buy a license that would allow a certain number of downloads, the book would then ‘wear out’and be repurchased. People who wanted a best seller right away would do what they do now, get in line to reserve it, or buy it.

    Changes in newspaper and periodical publishing is happening even faster. Familiar titles have vanished or gone completely electronic. Research resources? That’s pretty much a done deal.

    3 million kindles were sold this year. Estimates are that sales will reach 20 million units by 2014. Competing e-book readers and content providers are on the horizon. Super low cost content is just around the corner. (I can get a movie a day from netflix for 15 bucks a month…the same thing will happen with books). Clearly something is happening here. Hopefully the library will embrace this change, and come to the realization that their space requirements for books will be quite different in the future and plan accordingly.

    The community services that the library fufills are very important. Not the least of these is simple face to face interaction, something that is certainly missing with e-books. But a library is first and foremost a place where literary materials are kept for lending. When those materials change in a fundamental way, libraries must do the same.

    January 22, 2010
  10. Margit Johnson said:

    In response to William’s post, I would say that libraries are “first and foremost a place where” people access information. More information + more people = more business for libraries.

    The Northfield Public Library has offered eBooks for 3 years. In December 2009 alone 84 eAudioBooks were circulated. If you go to and the library’s website, you will find a link to electronic resources including eAudioBooks. Downloadable books for Kindles and Nooks will be next.

    The library circulated over 400,000 items in 2009, a record high. December 2009’s circulation included 14,695 hardcover books, 1,309 paperback books, 1,434 books on CD, 809 music CDs, 5,990 DVDs, 63 video games, and 445 periodicals. Ninety one people signed up for a library card for the first time during the month, 2,570 people borrowed something from the library in December, 1,400 people visited the library’s train exhibit from 5-8 PM during Winter Walk, and there were 1,904 logins to the internet during the 250 hours that the library was open in December. And December is not the busiest month of the year.

    January 22, 2010
  11. Sean Fox said:

    While it doesn’t obviate the need to consider future tech in library expansion plans I think it’s important to note that there are big barriers to libraries ‘simply’ converting to e-books.

    Unlike physical books where the first-sale doctrine allows libraries to loan a book as much as it likes once it has been purchased, publishers can choose (and most/all do) to license e-books rather than sell them. The license can (and many do) contain prohibitions against “loaning” out the copy. Essentially you are leasing, not buying, the ebook. The publisher can determine the terms of the lease and it is very much in their power (and many think in their best interest) not to allow libraries (or anyone else) to lend out ebooks without additional charges. A number of major publishers have simply decided not to make their ebooks available to libraries at all.

    So while the world may be moving to ebooks, its not the obvious direction for libraries. If publishers continue to publish paper versions it may be the only option (for many titles) for libraries. And if publisher decide to move to soley to ebooks it may mark the end of the era where libraries can rely on the first sale doctrine to make many sorts of materials widely and inexpensively available.

    This trend isn’t just in ebooks. Media publishers in all realms are moving as fast as they can from physical distribution (CD, DVD) to electronic distribution (iTunes, Netflix streaming) both because of the obvious cost saving but also because it gives them control over all this unfettered lending that has been going on.

    It isn’t just that ebooks will mean the library needs less space, it’s that the underlying model of community lending of materials (to make a broad selection available to everyone, especially those who can’t afford to buy) is under threat.

    I’m both a big fan of libraries (raised by 2 librarians) and of new tech (waiting with credit card poised for next week’s iPad announcement) and I don’t see a happy resolution to all this….

    January 22, 2010
  12. William Siemers said:

    Sean…It seems to me that there is a kind of irreversible course in regard to electronic distribution of media. That train has left the station. I just can’t see publishers, or authors for that matter, refusing to allow library lending in the future. The interested parties will find a solution. If ever increasing numbers of readers do not want hard copy books, libraries, in conjunction with publishers, will find a way to make the alternative available. And it seems that our library, according to Margit, is begining to do just that.

    My point in this discussion is that library planners, and taxpayers who will foot the bill for library improvements, should not underestimate how much of the market will want electronic delivery in the future. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to predict that in 15 years libraries will need 50% less space for hard copy media. I think it is a mistake to assume that serving more people will require building more space.

    January 22, 2010
  13. Jerry Bilek said:

    William, where are you coming up with this number?
    “I don’t think it is much of a stretch to predict that in 15 years libraries will need 50% less space for hard copy media.”

    is it based in fact or just a guess on your part?

    January 22, 2010
  14. William Siemers said:

    Jerry…just a guess…kind of based on what has happened, and is happening, with music and movies. CD sales are down 45% since their peak in 2000, while downloading continues to surge. DVD sales were down 14% in the first half of 2009, pressured by low cost rentals and increasingly convienent digital delivery.

    January 22, 2010
  15. Paul Zorn said:

    William, Jerry, et al.,

    I’m kind of agnostic (or possibly atheist) on the quantitative question of what fraction of content will be delivered digitally in, say, 10 years. I think the qualitative answer—much more than now—is clear.

    Far less clear to me is what this implies for Northfield’s library space needs. As media become more electronic, for instance, it’s imaginable that *more* space will be needed to accommodate screens, reading devices, virtualy reality playgrounds, you name it. Or not.

    What does seem clear is that 10 years hence libraries will be used differently to how they’re used now. Some of the space now occupied by books (significant but not probably less than 50% of the entire library floor space) might well be freed up, but chairs, tables, desks, etc, are not going to get smaller anytime soon (unless our butts do, which seems unlikely).

    Another guess: the children’s collection, especially for little kids, will stay non-digital for a (relatively) long time. If my (now grown) kids are any indication, getting one’s hands on picture books is somewhere in the genes.

    P.S. My name is Paul and I’m a library addict. I’ve been one since (at least) 4th grade, when I attended a two-room school, with grades 4-8 upstairs, and a decent library/curiosity collection/ in a back room, mainly away from the teacher’s prying gaze. Under certain circumstances the classes not being “taught” at a given moment were allowed to use the library, supposedly to read and study. I remember some of those books (like Coral Island and Maneating Tigers of Kumaon) pretty well, but the ostrich egg, fetal pig, and pickled snakes made the clearest impression.

    January 22, 2010

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