When I took a high school class in "library science," the primary innovation I learned about was the Dewey Decimal System. It was invented in 1876.
But libraries insist that, despite their name (derived from liber, which is literally a Latin word for "tree bark"), they are hotbeds of innovation. The most surprising thing about this is that, to some extent, it’s true.
Yes, the "browsing" that libraries are constructed around is completely antithetical to how information is browsed on the Internet. But the existential threat posed by the web has driven libraries public and private to rethink how they can provide people with access not simply to dead trees, but to "information." Here are five of the most interesting examples:
A judge in Bexar County, Texas made waves when he announced his intention to build a library without any books at all. That’s somewhat of an overstatement; there will be no paperbacks and no hardbacks, but BiblioTech will have a surplus of e-readers, making the text itself accessible to anyone with a library card.
In a less extreme innovation, the Brooklyn Public Library system moved a section of paperbacks to make way for what it calls an "information commons." The space itself is full of gleaming computers and a recording studio, but the most important room may be the classroom, where they will offer classes in everything from Adobe Premiere to using e-readers.
The Westport Library wasn’t content with sticking with abstract digital information: they wanted people to be able to make actual things. Their "Maker Space" includes a fully functional MakerBot 3-D printer. On one recent day, a man came in and fabricated a prototype for a heart valve.
Boston has been experimenting with a model known mostly from retail’s "pop-up stores." The key insight is that libraries are like storefronts, in the sense that they need foot traffic to thrive, and to expose their wares to new audiences. (The greatest fear is that libraries will lose their audiences actuarially, as the older folks who depend on them die off.) If there aren’t people coming into the library, bring the library to where the people are.
Until the occupiers were thrown out of Zuccoti park and the books confiscated, "The People’s Library" gave people books to pass the time as well as a place for people to share their radical zines and fliers. Short-lived and hyper-local, it’s a low-infrastructure model for libraries to think about, but the greater lesson may be in the fact that it existed at all: As one of the only civic institutions other than the OWS kitchen, it suggests, perhaps, that old-fashioned bookshelf libraries still fill a basic need.