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As a public entity, libraries have been evolving. No longer are they the book-centric institutions of the mid 1900s. But the changes we’ve seen to date are only a tiny fraction of the changes we will see in the coming decades.

There are no road maps that give us a clear picture of where we are headed, only fuzzy ideas. For this reason we will begin to see more and more experimentation in the area of digital libraries, and in this discussion, a version of the digital library I’ve termed the Electronic Outpost.

Traditional books require the bulk of library staff time, with sorting and organizing often coupled with repairs and replacement. As we move to an era of inexpensive book readers (under $20) with improved user interfaces, we will begin to see libraries loaning out book readers instead of the paper books.

An Electronic Outpost is a satellite branch of a central library designed to be an efficiently run community gathering place. Size, shape, and purpose will vary. Some may fit well in shopping centers while others may be better suited to function as stand-alone buildings. Some may be very small, others quite large. Many may be planned with a homey, living room-like feel to them while others go with a more industrial design suited for a business audience.

My hope is that communities will begin to experiment, and that the Electronic Outpost will evolve to serve a different role than that of a traditional branch library.

As cities consider the Electronic Outpost options, we can expect to see a number of unique features mixed and matched to create a library environment closely aligned with the community it serves. Here are a few possible options:

1.) Search Command Center: People who come to libraries are searching for information. Sometimes it’s an exploratory mission with only vague notions about what they are looking for, at other times patrons have a laser-like precision in their search for specific data points. But invariable they will need help, and the Search Command Center is intended to be a central feature for a visitor’s first-contact.

2.) Periodical Section – Reading Room: Magazines and newspapers continue to be the spontaneous information sources for many library visitors. Comfortable overstuffed chairs and a fireplace or two will make this a very attractive place to kick back and recharge your intellectual batteries.

3.) Book Download Center: The downloading of books onto a book reader can happen either remotely or at the library itself. The purpose of a Book Download Center is to draw attention to this offering with some people needing help to do their first download and others asking for recommendations on book readers. Over the next five years, the price of book readers will plummet to under $20, and libraries will need to consider loaning out book readers as well as the downloadable version of the books. Future book readers will come in both audio and visual formats, and will actually be easier to read than traditional books.

4.) Cyber Café: Since many of the visitors will be largely focused on finding an open terminal and getting onto the Internet, it may make sense to design the Electronic Outpost around the look and feel of a casual, yet artsy, cyber-café. With this design, people will be looking for the perfect balance between privacy and inclusion, efficiency and randomness, and purpose and spontaneity. Coffee kiosks and food services, either operating as in-house library services or as adjacent businesses annexed to the library, can serve to complement the casual atmosphere.

5.) Gamer Stations: With games quickly becoming the cultural norm, standard issue in most households, gamer stations can be arranged for individual and group competitions as well as a variety of non-competitive activities. With the changing nature of games, its best to plan this area with flexible spaces that will change often.

6.) Daycare Facilities: Libraries tend to have a unique symbiotic relationship with daycare centers. Because of the strict rules governing daycare operations, pay-for-service daycare are best housed in adjoining facilities with separate staff and management. However, by leveraging library resources and aligning them with the needs of the community, a daycare facility can provide a win-win service to fit the needs of many library users.

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7.) Studio Section: Much the same way that books were the dividing point between the haves and have-nots of generations past, today’s primary dividing point is the equipment needed to access, create, and manipulate information. These can range from audio-capture, audio-editing studios; to video-capture, video-editing studios; to virtual world studios; to tele-presence rooms, and more.

8.) Mini-Theater: With the huge amount of effort being directed towards video today, and kids as young as 5-years old as well as great-great grandparents learning how to shoot and edit videos, the missing piece is often a room large enough for a small group to view the final production. Mini-theaters will quickly become a social gathering center with demand growing to fill the available time slots.

As you read through this list of options, many will be seen a bit radical or simply inappropriate for the community that you live in, and that’s okay. The intent here was to stretch your thinking about everything possible in an Electronic Outpost.

Libraries are going through a transition period, and the shape and form of libraries 20 years from now will look radically different than what we see today.

I encourage library leadership teams to experiment with the form, purpose, and substance that make up our friendly neighborhood libraries. As you consider the possibilities, I encourage you to challenge yourself with the question, “How does this improve the library experience?”

After all, libraries are not only about information, they are about ideas. What kind of experience will it take for you to have your next great idea?

By Thomas Frey