By Megan Dooley
It's getting to the point where some libraries are getting rid of books altogether. Electronic forms of media abound, rendering traditional versions less preferred.
The Oak Park Public Library hasn't reached that point. But there's no doubt change is necessary to keep up with a rapidly evolving literary world.
"We knew we were going to have to start thinking about it," said Dierdre Brennan, executive director. To that end, the library board of trustees is now developing a strategic plan to respond to some of the changes, though it's still in the very early stages.
Brennan said the inspiration came from a workshop held this spring. "It was all about the changing world — and the changing role of libraries in this world," she said. "This workshop was very much focused on how people are changing ... and how the library is responding to that."
Hundreds of details factor in. Whereas in previous generations workers might have held one or two jobs in a lifetime, modern professionals might have upwards of 10 or 15. In the 20th century, careers were often focused on a single area of expertise. Today, people are expected to be knowledgeable about a number of different topics, not to mention technically astute, creative and interactive.
"There's an emphasis on learning — not just learning inside, but outside the classroom," Brennan said. For instance, more people are turning to the Internet and reaching out to online networks to gain knowledge: How to build a deck, learn a language, or complete a homework assignment. All across the Internet, there is an explosion of content dealing with any topic imaginable. It's something that Brennan said the library is hoping to tap into.
"Really, that's what libraries are all about. We're about lifelong learning," she said.
But there are still big changes at work in the industry that has supplied the library with its primary resource for as long as these lending institutions have been around. And the evidence is immediate.
"The closing of Borders is a huge example of how the traditional world of print is changing too," Brennan said.
What is the appropriate response to those changes? That's where the planning process comes in. And the project to lead the library into the future is being called "Spark."
"Spark means that we think the library should be a spark for learning and a spark for creativity and a spark for creating a better future in Oak Park," Brennan said.
The process started with the staff, who were asked to share input about what changes should be made, in terms of both library services and the functions of the library buildings.
Next on the list will be to engage the community, either through public meetings or via technology. Brennan said she anticipates social media-based discussions will be held on the subject. It is the community, after all, that should benefit from any changes and advancements made.
"That's always our goal, to be the kind of library that Oak Park needs," Brennan said.
In the future, that will almost certainly include more e-content and downloadable material. Brennan said that smart phones will likely come into the mix soon as well.
"We see a lot of mobile applications for everything we do," she said.
In the future, for instance, people will be able to check out a book with a simple swipe of an iPhone or Droid.
Brennan said there are also questions as to how many computers the library will need, and where new forms of technology might make better substitutes.
"[We] need to be more agile in delivering the types of technology people need," she said. "There's a lot of really exciting possibilities."
Those possibilities do come at a cost, though the total price tag is still uncertain. But library staff and the board of trustees will be looking into grants and other funding sources to start paving the way for some of those changes. One place they'll look is within the MacArthur Foundation, which has sponsored similar work in the Chicago Public Library system. Brennan said the foundation has done a great deal of investigation into the changing landscape of learning.
The timeline for the Spark project is still somewhat uncertain, though Brennan said the library hopes to hold some focus groups this summer with teens and senior citizens, the two age demographics that are typically the early adopters of new technological trends.
Community conversations are slated for the fall, but Brennan said she expects the planning stage to continue into next year, especially in terms of the financial impact. The library board will be very careful in how they use their financial resources, and will give plenty of attention to other funding sources.
"We do hope to go for some grant money. We think Oak Park and our library is kind of a great laboratory for some of these projects," she said. "We know we're in the lead because as we look for examples of how to do this, we can't find any."
Oak Parkers shouldn't worry that the library will evolve into something unrecognizable, Brennan said. Change will come, but it will be for the better.
"Our core values aren't going to change. We still love books. We'll still be here to help people," she said. "We're not at all abandoning the things that have meant so much to the community and the library in the past.
"Change is challenging, but it's also an opportunity. ... The world is changing, so we are too."