Supporters of new GF library proposal gain ideas from national trends

Grand Forks Public Library was built at a time when people thought of libraries mostly as a place to get books and to read them. A few things have changed since, and there are now DVDs and CDs for checkout and computers for Internet access, thoug...

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Grand Forks Public Library was built at a time when people thought of libraries mostly as a place to get books and to read them. A few things have changed since, and there are now DVDs and CDs for checkout and computers for Internet access, though with not much room to grow.

But, in many ways, it's behind the times.

The newest libraries are a blend of community centers and shopping malls. The books are still around, but there are lots of spaces for meetings and group study. Adopting ideas from retailers, they have coffee shops and themed children's areas. Plenty of wiring accommodates growing tech needs and energy and labor saving devices cut down on costs.

None of that's going to happen anytime soon at the current Grand Forks library. It was just built that way.

Library officials complain there's not much room for expanding services even as usage has grown, which is why they're proposing a new library. They're asking the public for input on, among other things, what features it wants.


Here are a few general trends that libraries around the nation have seen:

Community hubs

Over the years, libraries have oriented away from being book-centric to being people-centric, and that means more spaces for people to interact, according to architect Rick McCarthy of PSA-Dewberry, one of the firms hired to design the proposed library.

This could mean anything from just a public meeting, to musical events, to adult-learning classes, to group-study areas. It also means having areas demarcated for different age groups. Children's areas have long been a staple of libraries, but traditionally underserved teenagers are getting their own spaces, too, as are adults looking for a quiet place to read.

A few ways libraries have done this include:

- Meeting rooms with all the furniture on casters so people can rearrange them easily for their needs. Projectors for computers and sound systems add to the utility.

- Cozy reading rooms with comfy couches, fireplace and magazine racks. Grand Forks library Director Wendy Wendt definitely likes that idea. "We would love to be the community's living room," she said.

- Children's areas with fun themes such as sailboats or spaceship themes. "The concept of fun in libraries is something we're seeing generally," McCarthy said.


- Teen areas with music listening stations that isolate sound allowing a small group to listen and study together.


Libraries were definitely surprised by the massive demand for computer use. McCarthy said he suspects that the cost of technology has outpaced the ability of some to pay. It's not just hardware to access the Internet, but also software that can cost hundreds of dollars.

Yet, many older libraries, such as Grand Forks', aren't arranged so computers can be accommodated easily. Conduits in the floor are too small to accept many new wires, which means a limit on the number of computer terminals and even outlets for laptops.

Determined not to be surprised by trends that they can't foresee, new libraries are building in features to maximize flexibility.

- Under-floor wiring. Some libraries are using a feature found in the information technology industry where the floors are raised, so instead of wiring being confined to specific conduits, they can go anywhere.

This gives libraries unprecedented flexibility. They can increase the number of electrical lines or Internet cables with ease and even move a computer lab from one end to another for much lower cost.

- Some libraries have bookshelves on casters so shelving can be rearranged easily in the future, should spacing requirements change.


Retail ideas

The likes of Barnes & Noble have influenced thinking at libraries, which are increasingly learning lessons from retail.

- Coffee shops. The "no food or drink" rule is old and busted now that librarians have seen Barnes & Noble pull it off. They also realize that if they trust patrons to take the books home, where the rule has no meaning, they can certainly trust them at the library itself.

The idea is very popular with library users.

"There isn't a coffee shop in every library we do, but in every library we do people ask for one," McCarthy said. When the traffic doesn't warrant a stand alone coffee shop, he said he often recommends a coffee corner where patrons can serve themselves.

- Arranging books by genre like bookstores do, instead of the Dewey decimal system. McCarthy said this actually makes it easier for patrons to find books, being more familiar to many of them. And, with computer catalogs, it's much easier these days to keep track of where books are.

Some libraries even have a kind of impulse buy section near the checkout counter where popular items would be arranged.

- Vending machine-like systems that dispense DVDs and CDs patrons put on hold. Just insert library card. The systems could be robust enough to be outside, allowing 24 hour access. Also, there's no staff involved, cutting costs.


- Drive-throughs to pick up books on hold or return books.


Libraries see a new building as an opportunity to catch up on some of the innovations that would allow them to reduce costs. This not only saves tax dollars in the long run, it also can free staff to interact more with patrons instead of doing work that machines can do.

- RFID tags, or radio frequency identification, can be immensely useful. When interrogated with a certain radio wave, they respond with their information. This means a number of things, according to McCarthy.

The tags reduce checkout time because machines can scan several books at a time, much faster than scanning barcodes with a laser.

They make inventory checks a cinch as staff members walk up and down the stacks waving a scanner.

They can detect if a patron has left the library with a book that he forgot to check out.

And they make automated material handling systems possible. These systems check books in and sort them, which saves staff time. The systems are expensive, he said, but even for small libraries the savings can be significant because staff salaries are one of the highest costs of running a library.


Wendt said this is a key issue because a new library will drive usage up, which means streamlining staff time is critical.

- Like other buildings, libraries are looking at energy efficiency features such as air handling systems that only treat air where the air is most stale or lighting that automatically adjusts in strength depending on how much natural lighting is available.

Natural lighting in particular is desirable both for the savings and the soothing effect on patrons.

Geothermal heating also is a consideration. The system pumps heat from the ground and doesn't use as much power.

- Orient the library according to the sun. The warmth can keep entrances relatively free of ice and snow in the winter, and the building can absorb more heat as well.

- Layouts that give staff better views of all areas of the library. Wendt said this can allow staff to do more. For example, being in the backroom sorting books means a staff member can't see if there's a long line at the checkout counter or if a patron needs help finding a book.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to .

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