Virtual reality simulations, talking robots and a magic school bus — this is what happens when a theme park company designs a library.
Landmark Entertainment Group — the company responsible for the Spider-Man and Jurassic Park rides at Universal Orlando and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas — has partnered with the city of Homestead to create the world’s first “Cybrary,” or cyber library.
“We are redefining what the library is,” said George Gretsas, Homestead’s city manager. “When you think about bettering this thing called a library, which has been around since before 300 B.C, do you turn to the library scientists — the librarians — to create a fresh and new thing, or do you turn to people who have expertise in the areas of entertainment and attraction?”
Homestead did the latter.
The Cybrary was designed to break every stereotype — no shushing, no boredom. It will have old-fashioned books but also much more. Think e-books, librarians in unique costumes and a verbose robot welcoming you to the building.
“It’s like, why can’t Mary Poppins be your Cybrarian? What if children weren’t hushed but rather encouraged and inspired to really want to read, to learn, to explore new places to really engage?” said Tony Christopher, Landmark’s founder, CEO and president. “We are brainstorming ways to gamify the library experience and make kids — and adults — actually want to take a trip to the library.”
Christopher’s vision is reflected in Landmark’s design of the Cybrary. It will boast almost a dozen attractions including a massive circuit tree, which will serve as the facility’s nucleus. Its branches will glow in a kaleidoscope of colors and will guide visitors to different parts of the Cybrary.
Visitors will get the chance to take part in augmented reality experiences, where characters will climb out of books and come to life by way of goggles or a headset. People will also have the opportunity to transport themselves to foreign countries and past centuries after stepping into the Cybrary’s “virtual reality cube.” They will also have access to Homestead’s Mariachi Academy, which will give kids a forum to perform outside.
Homestead’s current public library, which was built four decades ago at 700 N. Homestead Blvd. and managed by Miami-Dade County, will be no more. Whether or not it will be demolished is still up in the air, but the building won’t be used as a library. The new Cybrary will be operated by the city. It will be a two-story 35,000 square-foot building built on the site of an auto parts business at the intersection of Mowry Street and North Krome Avenue. Construction is scheduled to start in March and be completed in summer 2018.
The $16 million project is part of a massive effort to revitalize the city’s rundown downtown area. The city has already debuted a new city hall, restored its historic Seminole Theatre and will unveil its new police station on Feb. 15. A new parking garage, bowling alley and movie theater are also in the pipeline.
The money for the new library comes from several sources including the Community Redevelopment Agency, the recent sale of the city’s decrepit bowling alley, miscellaneous grants, and a $3.5 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan, money earmarked for economic revitalization projects that would have otherwise gone to renovating a golf course. The city is also in line for funding from a federal program called “New Market Tax Credits” and is seeking out sponsorships.
“We’ve created a civic footprint downtown, and the library kind of belongs there. The intent is getting a critical mass of people down here. We have a lot of shops and things to do but there are really no people,” said Homestead’s mayor, Jeffrey Porter. “It’s like a sensory overload that will teach kids and get them back in the library.”
The city’s desire to bring the Cybrary to life was sparked when council members asked 20 high school students if they had been to the library in the past two years. Only two students raised their hands. At the time, the city already had starting planning the Cybrary and wanted to know where conventional libraries fall short.
“These are Homestead’s smartest and brightest who laughed and said they had nothing for them there,” Christopher said. “We want to capitalize on the strengths of what the traditional library has been, but we want to focus on making it cooler and gamifying it; making it a place where children find fascination and fun and have a dynamic place to go. A place where they can do all these fantastic things — including checking out a book.”
Landmark was created in 1980 in Pasadena, California, by several former Disney employees. The group is known for creating, designing, and producing indoor and outdoor themed entertainment attractions — theme park rides and shows like Universal’s Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride in Orlando and the “Conan the Barbarian” show in California; and casinos like The Grand Venetian. However, it’s the company’s first library.
The Homestead City Council and Landmark have been brainstorming the Cybrary for about a year and a half.
“Landmark has had tremendous success at creating world-class unique attractions that millions of people have flocked to and we thought they would be the best partner to help us reinvent the library,” Gretsas said.
Yes, the Cybrary will still have books, just not as many. Primarily, the Cybrary will deal in e-books and laptops. Reference materials like encyclopedias, dictionaries and atlases will be mainly digitized and stored electronically. How long books stay around will depend on their popularity.
There will also be separate quiet rooms. “We want to make sure we respect that people also want to come to the library to study and need some silent space,” Christopher said.
A giant robot sculpture and a magic school bus will stand outside the Cybrary. The robot will welcome guests and tell them about the history of Homestead and nearby Everglades and Biscayne national parks. The school bus won’t move but it will be a ride of sorts, transporting students to all kinds of places — through the human body as a red blood cell, to the bottom of the ocean or through space.
Inside, a children’s pop-up theater is planned, where bookshelves will transform into seats and spontaneous story events or mini-plays can be held. There will also be a “maker’s space” that will promote entrepreneurship and encourage visitors to be creative.
“The goal is to have 3-D printers so that people can design, build, and unleash their creativity,” Porter said. “It’s almost a way to freelance your creative juices.”
It’s still undecided which attractions and services will be free and what Homestead residents will have free access to that nonresidents won’t.
“Most of it will be free but there are going to be aspects of it that there will probably be a charge for. Most of these decisions have not been made,” Porter said.
Christopher said one goal is to have the Cybrary bring in revenue to the city. The city even trademarked the “Cybrary” brand.
“We’re hoping it can be a flagship, the first of its kind. Before you know it libraries across the country will want a Cybrary in their community,” Christopher said. “This could bring in a fixed revenue stream for the city. Imagine what that would do for Homestead and its people.”
The Cybrary will have a “flex space” to be used for such events as ceremonies, lectures, and fiestas. In the building will also be Homestead’s Mariachi Academy, the first of its kind in South Florida. In 2015, the Homestead-based Mexican-American Council received a $60,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the creation of the academy. It was part of the Knight Arts Challenge Miami.
“What if we had a band playing outside inviting young people in to rock the library? What if there was live music on the weekends? A lot of kids out there don’t have places to go, and a lot of the time they go to the wrong places. What if this would become that place?” Christopher said, noting that the Cybrary will also have a themed coffee shop and restaurant.
Christopher recalled a comment by Caitlin Moran, an English writer: “The library is a cathedral of the mind, a hospital for the soul, and a theme park for the imagination,” Christopher quoted. “And that’s what we’re going for.”