Reimagining Libraries: Blazing the Digital Frontier

In this series, guest columnists write about what’s working at their library, how they are adjusting to the digital age, and what their community expects from a library. Sarah Houghton, San Rafael (CA) Library Director, writes about libraries as community information centers.


Public libraries are not what you may remember from your childhood. Tall, dusty stacks. Stern librarians shushing you for the slightest noise above a whisper. I actually remember getting shushed for dropping a pencil onto the linoleum floor. A fear of late fines and a worry about being caught writing in a book.

Today’s public libraries are community information centers in every sense of the word. Conversations, joy, and yes—noise—are part of every library today. As librarians and other library workers, our jobs are part information expert, part technology support, part social worker, and part life coach. When libraries are open to the public, we mean exactly that—the entire public. Regardless of who you are, our physical and digital doors are open to you and we will do everything we can to get you what you need and want.

As technologies have evolved so have libraries. You can predictably find libraries on the cutting edge of technology change—whether it’s desktop computers, scanners, mobile apps, 3D printers, or virtual reality systems. Many community members and elected officials don’t necessarily think of their libraries as hotbeds of technological innovation and incubation, but we are precisely that.

The San Rafael (California) Public Library is smallish as public libraries go. But our two-library system still finds a way to offer top notch technology services. We have a secure website and patron database that ensure no individual or group can see what you do at the library without a subpoena or a warrant. We have a gigabit connection at both libraries, including our wireless access. We offer standard computers with internet and office software but we also offer a few high-end computers for graphic design, audio and video editing, and advanced software. We have two 3D printers for public use. We have two virtual reality systems which we make accessible to the public. We offer multiple apps for all ages, eBooks and eAudioBooks, online museum and zoo passes, online homework tutors, streaming music and movies, and online library card registration (you don’t even need to come in to register—we’ll mail your card to your house). Once you get that library card, all of the other stuff is free for you to access…oh, and that precious library card is free too as long as you live anywhere in California.

Bigger libraries that can capitalize on economies of scale (think Los Angeles Public Library or Chicago Public Library) offer makerspaces with a full array of make-it-yourself tools and technologies, coding classes, battle of the bands, veteran resource centers, tool libraries, musical instrument libraries, local historical libraries, specialized technology for access for people with disabilities, business start-up classes, GED programs, and drag queen storytimes.

Your local library is literally your best and only free gateway to learning those things you want to learn—be it how to play the ukulele or how to cook mouthwatering Ethiopian food. Internet down at home? Use it for free at the library and we won’t even make you buy a cup of coffee. Need to scan old family photographs? We’re here to help. Need some tips on how to use your iPad? We’re here for you. The library is also your gateway to worlds unknown—if someone dreamt it and wrote it or recorded it, you can use the library to experience someone else’s creation. Better yet, unlike most of the for-profit companies that offer similar services or resources, we promise to protect your privacy 100%. It’s no one’s business but your own what you do at the library and librarians will go to jail before we’ll hand over user information without due legal process (seriously, librarians have gone to jail). Librarians are also on the front lines of fighting for net neutrality, fair copyright laws, and against censorship and surveillance.

There are more libraries in the United States than McDonald’s and more libraries in the United States than Starbucks. Pretty much any community you live in is going to have a library that is open to everyone in that community. I can guarantee that your local library will be offering at least one thing that surprises you, that helps make your life better or easier, or delights you. We’re here to help you be the best you that you can be. Come on in through our physical or digital doors and we’ll welcome you wholeheartedly.


Supplemental Reading