Shelby White and Leon Levy Information Commons
Brooklyn Public Library, N.Y.
The Info Commons was conceived as Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) was analyzing a community needs assessment and developing a master plan for its Central Library. BPL needed to adapt itself to Brooklyn’s changing demographics and employer expectations. The emergence of digital literacy as a prerequisite to workforce readiness, and the rise of Brooklyn’s creative class and economy, forced the library to redefine its educational mission. Meanwhile, BPL’s Central Library needed major reorganization and renovation to serve its visitors better. The community needs assessment and Central plan informed the thinking behind the Info Commons by pointing out a need for spaces to work, learn, and collaborate; for access to advanced computers, software, and equipment; for more and better classes and training in a dedicated classroom. The recession that was unfolding as a backdrop reinforced these needs. The Info Commons addresses these diverse challenges in a cohesive space. The space includes a 70-seat open workspace for freelancers, jobseekers, and students to work and study, and it offers 25 computer workstations with design software to learn new skills. There are seven public meeting rooms (including an amateur recording studio) for group study, collaborative workshops, and one-on-one tutoring and coaching services. Finally, a high-tech training lab hosts computer, media production, and information literacy classes, and can also be used for skillshares, hackathons, and other peer-led learning opportunities.
Key Elements of Innovation
This project spurred several innovations. Central Library’s public technology was reorganized: BPL created a computer center for general use (including entertainment and socializing) so that computers in the Info Commons and subject divisions could be dedicated to research, job hunting, and software use. This allowed the library to invest in iMacs with advanced software for the Info Commons. The meeting rooms have reimagined library use. BPL created an online reservation system that integrated with its ILS, and allowed its members reserve rooms with a library card and no staff mediation. This has essentially let people dictate how part of their library should be used, and the rooms have become a venue for community-driven writing workshops, book clubs, and conversation groups. They have also provided appropriately private locations for one-on-one library services like resume coaching, business counseling, and “Book A Librarian” sessions. The training lab expanded BPL’s capacity as an educational institution. Conceived as an agile learning space, the lab offers both PC and MacBook laptops instead of desktops. On any given day there may be an Excel workshop on PCs in the morning and a podcasting class on MacBooks at night. Attendees can borrow a laptop or bring their own. The lab also gave the library a highly visible, and desirable, space for outside organizations to work inside. This helped BPL forge partnerships with a variety of organizations, including BRIC Arts, which offers media production classes every Thursday. Other organizations that have held workshops in the space include Global Kids, Wikimedia NYC, and the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. As libraries nationwide face budget cuts and attrition, these partnerships are crucial for offering new and innovative programming.
In its first two month, we have already offered dozens of classes, hundreds of meeting room reservations, and thousands of computer sessions. We're on track to meet our goal of hosting 600 training events in our first year. The opening of an attractive new space brought us many new users. Unfortunately, in our first weeks we became a victim of this success. We did not have adequate broadband for Wifi, resulting in slow Internet speed, complaints, and lost users. After installing a dedicated cable line to service the Info Commons wireless access points, users returned full force. In February the Central Library’s wireless network hosted nearly 7,000 unique devices, indicating that it has become a destination for freelancers and students. Lesson: invest in extra broadband. Almost everyone was enthusiastic about meeting room access, although it took a few weeks for users to begin reserving them. Now most rooms are occupied at any given time. One unforeseen issue was that some private or outside groups expected same reservation privileges as library staff or library-sponsored programs. Given ongoing budget cuts, we could not hire a dedicated staff for the space apart from two coordinators in grant-funded positions. Simultaneously, we offer new services, technology to troubleshoot, and classes to lead. This will be a challenge going forward, but also an opportunity to retrain librarians, leverage partnerships, and attract volunteers. On balance, though, the Info Commons has been a success that will help position BPL as a leader in lifelong learning.