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The digital age is forcing libraries to change. Here’s what that looks like.

The Digital Commons at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. (DC Public Library/The Freelon Group)

You make a beeline from the door to the iPad mini. The touch interface is nice, but you want something a little larger so you move on to the next device. Are you weighing a purchase at an Apple Store? No, you’re trying one of the lineup of devices at the new Digital Commons space at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

The similarity to an Apple Store is no accident, according to Nicholas Kerelchuk, the manager of the Digital Commons. But at the Digital Commons you can try out e-book readers from all of the major manufacturers, including Kindles, Nooks, and Windows 8 tablets.

And the e-book readers are just the start. When the Digital Commons opened in July, it featured a 3-D printer with a smart panel design, on-demand book binding machine, 80 desktops (some of them featuring pricey graphic design suites), rows of tables set up for patrons bringing their own devices, a Skype station, and a vast co-working space the library calls the “Dream Lab.” Could this sprawling space be a glimpse into the future of libraries?

Libraries around the country are facing budget cuts as local governments struggle with the aftermath of the recession – and in many cases that means fewer branches or services. But in the recession more people than ever relied on libraries for frugal entertainment options and to search for employment opportunities.

However, at the same time, libraries are facing an identity crisis: As the Internet has become the primary way people gather information, the traditional "building filled with books" model is less relevant to their lives.

As a result, "libraries are really transforming themselves into technology hubs” says Kathryn Zickuhr, a researcher focusing on how Americans use libraries at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Pew's research shows that while many patrons still want to use libraries to borrow books, they’re also increasingly thinking of them as a community space that enables access to technology and a source of digital literacy for all different demographics.

George Williams, the Media Relations Manager for the D.C. Public Libraries system, certainly sees the Digital Commons as part of that shift: “one of the great things about the space is it is come as you are. There is no prerequisite that you must know 3-D printing or that you must know even computer basics.”

Some of the computers in the Commons are set up to be one-on-one stations where library workers can assist patrons who are just learning the technology. Zickuhr says this reflects a trend Pew is seeing in libraries across the country: “They end up offering a lot of one-on-one assistance to patrons who need to use a computer or e-mail for the first time, but don’t have the experience and may not have any other place they can go to get that.”

Even outside of the Commons, digital services are a big part of what the library system provides. Williams says their digital library is “the busiest location outside of Martin Luther King Jr. Library.” While there are a variety of things available, like free digital magazine subscriptions, remote e-book rentals are one of their most popular with 50 percent annual growth “at a minimum” since they started provided the service.

In some ways, the Commons is a physical space 18 months in the making that reflects the investments in digital resources the D.C. library system has made in the last several years. “The idea of the Digital Commons,” Williams says, “is not only bridging the digital divide in terms of what people say when they mean about access to the internet, for us it’s access to tech and the skills they’re going to need as tech continues to change the way that we interact, the way that we work, and the way that we learn.”

The 3-D printer is the “rock star” of the space in terms of popularity. But more importantly, Kerelchuk says, “this is the future. Look at the bio-medical field, look at the auto industry, they're using 3-D printing.”

Kerelchuk also has a special place in his heart for the Dream Lab which he believes is "one of the first co-working places in a public libraries," saying that despite having the least amount of technology, it’s “probably the most exciting thing in the room." In exchange for using the space, entrepreneurs agree to provide one hour of community programming per month. The Commons received over 25 applications from groups wanting to use the space by July 30— just three days after they started accepting applications.

Williams thinks the Commons sets D.C. apart from other libraries in the country: “No space had something as large in scale and scope as we've done in DC." Kerelchuk agrees, arguing “everyone's done a computer lab, people have done a digital bar, people have done a maker space, in some cases they've done a style of co-working space with collaborative rooms [...] but no one's ever done it all in one room."

More important than comparing the Digital Commons to other library modernization efforts, however, is how they are adapting to the needs of the District in the digital age: “we’re a very reactive agency, if the public asks for it we’re going to try to give it to them” says Kerelchuk. So when he says, “we’re changing the community, we really are” it’s hard not to think “and the needs of the community are changing you.”

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