Envisioning Libraries as Community Hubs

A conversation with Jane Dedering on the evolving role of libraries in the era of social distancing.

Jane Dedering is Vice President and Senior Designer specializing in library planning at HGA, where she has been instrumental in shaping the evolving role of community libraries for more than 20 years. “I was drawn to library design because they are inclusive gathering spaces that make irreplaceable contributions to communities through resources, services, and engagement,” she says. “These community hubs fulfill many diverse requirements.”

In the following, Dedering discusses her passion for libraries, community engagement, and how the current pandemic will influence libraries moving forward.

What makes the role of libraries unique during this time of social distancing?

Libraries always have been asked to do a great deal to serve the public and a wide variety of people—from balancing traditional print media with high-tech services, to serving as a quiet oasis, or offering welcoming space as a bustling social hub. They have always adapted quickly to changing needs, and now with the COVID-19 crisis, they are adapting even more quickly to meet new patron expectations. In a post-quarantine world, these expectations will only continue to grow.

What are some of these expectations?

In recent months there’s been an increase in virtual programming, such as virtual story times and virtual book clubs. There’s a new comfort level in going online for discussions and meetings. Virtual programming will continue to be a great way to reach people who are unable to get to the library or choose to participate remotely to stay connected. It strengthens the sense of community if you can stay connected.

Columbia Heights Public Library interior 1
Columbia Heights Public Library
How do these changes impact traditional library services?

Libraries won’t eliminate current services—instead, they will continue to evolve their services and strengthen their role in community. The library has become an essential service. Even before the pandemic, libraries have provided many resources and services which previous providers had eliminated. The headlines focus on modern libraries as social spaces, with coffee shops and large, flexible meeting rooms, gaming for teens, maker spaces—which are all important assets and central to building community and providing educational opportunities for everyone.

But libraries also provide a crucial space for the people who need help with various tasks, from filing out an online job application, meeting with social workers or healthcare providers, or tutoring. There should be no barriers at the library.  It’s a place where age, ethnicity, education, social status, and ability doesn’t matter. The library is a neutral place—everyone is welcome  and has access to the resources.

Libraries also are helping with food pickups, where people can stop by and pick up a lunch or a meal. I know of one urban librarian who called several elderly patrons who are her usual patrons to check on them during this pandemic. Another library is setting up limited-use computers in their meeting rooms so people can access computers while the main building is still closed. Libraries are central to meeting the diverse and ever-changing needs of their patrons.

What is the “new normal” for libraries as they reopen?

I recently went on a site visit to a library that was preparing to reopen. They were adding signage, removing chairs, increasing cleaning procedures, closing off the children’s literacy area—and had learned that “saran wrap” is a cost-effective way to protect computer keyboards because it doesn’t impair use and is disposable after each use.

Research continues around how long the virus lasts on paper and plastics, so libraries are quarantining their materials for three to seven days, which then takes longer for materials to recirculate to others. There’s also discussion about future access to magazines—because as much as print magazine are diminishing, some people still love to sit in a reading room in the sun with their magazine.

Libraries also are considering evolving staffing roles. If curbside pick-up becomes more of an option, more staff may be needed to be fulfill curbside orders. Some libraries are discussing the staffing implications of adding a pick up window; however, if a window is there, patrons will expect someone will be there to help, just like at Walgreens. In our work, we always try to balance how we can achieve the patrons’ service requests with the least impact to the library’s staffing limitations. There’s always a way if you take time to understand the real need.

How does this new normal influence design and space planning?

My approach is through universally inclusive design. This allows, in many ways, to meet the wide variety of needs for an even wider cross section of the population. Buildings need to be designed to be as accessible and intuitive as possible. Signage is not wayfinding. One sign always leads to another. If the building is intuitive, the building will be easy to navigate and will empower users. Intuitive design allows people to experience the space on their own terms: “There’s where I can get help. There’s where I’ll find the computers. There’s a quiet place. ” Visitors feel, “I’m empowered to explore here—I get it.”

Mitchell Street Library interior main floor
Milwaukee Public Library, Mitchell Street Branch
How can libraries expand their community impact beyond a single-use building?

Over the last 10 years we have seen an increase in partnerships between libraries and other organizations that serve communities. Prior to the pandemic, we saw many libraries partnering with housing projects, recreation centers, or office buildings. Recently, we are seeing new partnerships with healthcare services, workforce development centers, licensing centers. Some libraries have been collaborating with community gardens, which supports educational programs around healthy eating and healthy lifestyles.

Libraries are so much more than the book. Each community provides services around what specifically is best for them today, and the buildings need to be flexible to accommodate new programs in the future. We often create facility master plans with library systems, looking at how to deliver library services on a system-wide basis and how to define each library as a destination unique to each neighborhood and location. It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution. No two libraries are the same because no two communities are the same.

How can libraries promote inclusive environments through continuous—and sometimes disruptive—change?

This pandemic is an “extreme”—we learn from the extreme—but we don’t limit design to these times; we learn from them. Our world will continue to change quickly, and we will need to observe and respond to accommodate these changes. If you think you need a 150-person meeting today—chances are your programs will still need to accommodate 150 people but for the foreseeable future—how we accommodate 150 people will be a combination of room capacity, technology, and streaming content to remote participants.

Yes, these are disruptive times, and through them we will learn more and shape the future of libraries. Working together, we apply our collective knowledge and experience to make good decisions as good stewards of public funds. Through empathy and inclusivity, libraries will continue to serve everyone in our communities as safe and welcoming environments today and for the future. This is the role of the public library!