Libraries with looms for weaving fabric. Libraries with offices for start-ups. Libraries with lattes near the check-out counter.
Books amounted to a footnote in Monday’s discussion on how to reinvent Miami-Dade County’s library system, which recently dodged a funding crisis and now is in the midst of rolling out expanded hours and offerings.
A panel convened by Miami’s Knight Foundation urged a remake of the library’s core identity — away from a quiet place for reading into more of an amenity-rich community center, with enough offerings to attract people uninterested in free books or computer time.
“We do everyone a disservice when we take an exclusively bookish, 20th Century approach to library design,” said Corinne Hill, director of the library system in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a frequent speaker on reinventing libraries.
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The “Future of Libraries” luncheon at downtown Miami’s Intercontinental Hotel drew County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Juan C. Zapata, and Commissioner-elect Daniella Levine Cava. It also highlighted the growing role Knight is playing as the county’s library system grapples with financial and political challenges.
The Miami-based nonprofit backed a poll during the county’s budget debate that supporters of a higher library tax seized on as proof that residents wanted to pay more for better library services. Commissioners ultimately settled on increasing the library property tax higher than Gimenez proposed, but still lower than what advocates wanted.
The extra dollars are helping fund an expansion of the popular You Media teen program that Knight helped start in a Miami Gardens branch, along with the return of Sunday hours this weekend for the first time since a 2011 cut in the library tax rate brought on austerity measures. Knight is also offering $2.5 million in grant money for a nationwide contest on library innovations.
With Gimenez needing a permanent replacement for retired library director Raymond Santiago, Knight executives are urging the mayor to conduct a national search.
In his comments to the audience, Knight CEO Alberto Ibargüen cited the “amazing opportunity” from the opening, currently filled by Santiago deptuy Gia Arbogast. Ibargüen, a former Miami Herald publisher, suggested that a candidate able to bring “transformational change” have “discovery, vision, courage, know-how and tenacity.”
A 2013 study of Miami-Dade’s 49 branches found books, magazines and DVDs far outweigh other draws, with 82 percent of adults surveyed saying they use “hard-copy materials” when they come to the library. Among households with children, it was 94 percent. About 40 percent said they used library computers or Internet access.
Amy Garmer, head of an Aspen Institute program on libraries, said branches need to abandon tradition if they’re going to attract new users. “A library is a very conservative institution. That’s part of what its job has been for so long.”
Knight panelists emphasized the need for libraries to leverage their locations at the heart of neighborhoods and communities, and draw in residents by offering educational and creative services that are otherwise lacking. Hill cited a partnership with the home-made goods site etsy.com in purchasing the loom and offering sewing classes at one branch.
Kenneth Furton, provost at Florida International University, said his school turned around chronic failures in algebra by launching a “Math Gym” in a campus library with tutors specializing in the algebra curriculum. Garmer said libraries can play a key role in teaching pre-schoolers to read, while the library director for Los Angeles, John Szabo, endorsed using community groups to match branches with residents in need.
Several speakers also touted libraries as excellent venues for start-ups, providing conference rooms, offices and resources sought after by developing businesses. Miami-Dade is moving that way, Arbogast said, with so-called “maker spaces” centered around new 3-D printers coming to branches in Miami Beach and downtown.
“It used to be you heard about companies starting in garages,” said Furton, the FIU provost. “I think what you’re going to hear down the road is companies starting in libraries.”