Invite your community to shape smart spaces

Betha Gutsche

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When 15 small and rural libraries joined the Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces project, they signed on for a journey toward transforming their physical spaces and library services. Their exploration was guided by principles of placemaking, design thinking, and active learning. Along the way, they connected with their communities in refreshing new ways that catalyzed relationships and opened up possibilities.

Transformation is a big, ambitious word, charged with expectation of profound change. It might seem like an oversized challenge for libraries that are defined by small: small town, small building, small budget. But these 15 intrepid libraries, serving populations of 560 to 16,000 people, discovered the key to unlocking true transformation: meaningful connection with the community.

Rather than a more familiar positioning of “the library as the heart of the community,” each sought to put their community at the heart of the library.

Invite the community to participate

The process starts from the core principle of placemaking: the community is the expert. Placemakers deploy a variety of tools to uncover the needs and aspirations of community members. Whatever tool is used, it’s all about listening to the community—including them in planning, building, and program delivery in the smart spaces.

Each library community that participated in the project is unique; each followed a distinctive path to active learning in a smart space. If you’re looking for a similar transformation, one of these paths might be for you.

Look to your fans

For the Cornwall Public Library in Cornwall, New York, the enthusiasm of their advocates to jump in and do the “heavy lifting” was a core part of their success. Once the library identified the underused reference desk area for a conversion, community members stepped up to contribute skills and energy—all pro bono. A local design firm planned the layout and furnishings. An electrician wired the electronics and lights. Two talented teenagers painted a vivid, organic mural on the walls. A carpet layer made a three-hour round-trip commute to install the carpet on a Sunday because “… libraries have been good to me in my life.” Take away: Don’t be reluctant to ask for help! Your fans will step up. In the words of Library Director Mary Lou Carolan, “The community helped the space come alive; they fanned the flames.”

From passive space to active place

The footprint of the Glenns Ferry Public Library in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, was too small for its dynamic Director Jennifer Trail. “I have so many ideas and so little space.” She learned from the community discovery process that her town is full of people who want to be “doing things.” Now, a former backwater space that housed VHS tapes has been refurbished with new flooring, bright paint, colorful cabinets, and modular tables. It’s a hub of activity where kids and adults spend time together learning and making things. Take away: Physical space comes alive when people are doing things together.

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Connect to community goals

In remote, southwestern Colorado, the Ignacio Community Library is an oasis of community connection. Building on a commitment to be an instrument of change for the community, Library Director Marcia Vining envisioned the transformation of a room that was “bare, inflexible, and cramped.” Library staff prototyped their ideas with scale models and invited library visitors to help shape the space. With bright walls, a word mural, flexible tables, and new storage, the room is now rocking with activity. It hosts entrepreneurship programs, local deejays who coach on using audio equipment, and kids who are teaching other kids. Take away: Pursue your community’s goals to become a hub of continual engagement.

Space for hope

In rural northwest Alabama, Town Creek has been struggling with a declining economy and a pervasive atmosphere of discouragement. Library Director Sharon Green was determined to create space in the library to address community members’ perceived limitations, a space where all ages could find inspiration and hope. Sharon gathered community needs and wishes through a “vocal survey” involving numerous conversations with town residents. She made impressively efficient use of the modest grant funds to revitalize areas of the small library for adults, youth, and children. Their first makerspace is a workbench with STEM toys and projects stored underneath. For this economically depressed community, it is a transformative space for kids who lack STEM classes in school. They are reveling in their space to play and explore. Take away: Creating space for opportunity to flourish brings hope to a community.

How can you put the community in the heart of your library?

The great thing about all these stories is that they can be inspiration and instruction for your library’s “smart space” transformation. You can find more inspiring stories on the WebJunction Transformation Stories page or sign up for Crossroads for news about Smart Spaces. And learn more about the community discovery process and tools in the Making Space for Active Learning course.

What’s next for your library?