On a recent visit to the new Hunt Library at the Centennial Campus of the North Carolina State University, I observed an unusual sight – for most libraries that is. A group of individuals, they might have been prospective students and their parents or perhaps just a group participating in some summer workshop, was highly immersed in a rather unique library experience. They were learning about and watching a demonstration of the Library’s robotic Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS), and rather enjoying how the Bookbot’s robot arm moved crates of books to and fro. The visitors were clearly immersed in this particular library experience. With a glass wall through which it could all be observed, the building’s designers clearly intended for this spectacle to catch the attention of all those entering the library. While it delivered a unique experience, did it motivate anyone in the crowd to search the catalog or move on to the stacks to find a book of their own? Or did they simply move on to the next destination point the way one might if touring the White House or Hoover Dam?
The question of the extent to which we should be re-thinking and re-designing the library experience as both immersive and interactive was the subject of an essay questioning similar work in the world of art museums. The author, Judith H. Dobrzynski, asks if it shouldn’t be enough to just view the artwork by yourself or with other people and obtain enjoyment or satisfaction from being exposed to great art. Why does it have to be embellished by some sort of artificially attached experience? She writes:
For decades, museums have offered social experiences — the fact that you can talk while you’re in the galleries has always given them an edge over the performing arts — and that is good. Now is the balance shifting too far to the experience? Are they losing what makes them unique? Should museums really follow the path of those “experience” businesses…In this kind of world, the thrill of standing before art — except perhaps for works by boldface-name artists like van Gogh, Vermeer, Monet and Picasso — seems not quite exciting enough for most people. What’s a museum to do?
The answer, for many museums, is to hire a User Experience Director.
The concerns of Dobrzynski are reasonable. She wants people to come to the art museum for the sheer enjoyment of discovering and viewing great works of art. There is also a learning component in becoming more knowledgeable about artists and the stories behind their work. But she does understand that the experiences that people have in contact with other commercial and cultural institutions has raised their expectations. For many people there has to be more than just walking through galleries:
Playwrights now turn theatergoers into participants or let them choose the ending. Botanical gardens are adding skywalks that let visitors traipse through treetops. Museums stage sleepovers in the galleries and dance parties in huge atriums that were built to be gathering spaces. The landmark Beaux-Arts headquarters of the New York Public Library, on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a sedate research institution, may soon be transformed with the addition of a gigantic branch library, where the main draws will be meeting places and areas for teenagers and children. A ground-floor cafe has already moved in. Who needs Starbucks?
In another era people were content to stroll through zoos observing the animals in rather grim settings. While zoos have vastly improved the animals’ environment and the viewing experience it’s insufficient. Now, to get parents to bring their kids, the zoo has to offer some kind of immersive, interactive learning experience.
The shift to an experience-based culture can be worrisome for purists. Those who responded to Dobrzynski’s article agreed that it is troubling when, as one letter writer put it, museums “pander to the public looking for an experience”. Designing an intentional experience is equated with selling out to bulk up the door counts, dumbing down to appeal to those who fear exposing themselves to culture will be boring or to simply compete with all the other attention grabbing distractions that consume people. If you asked a bunch of summer campers if they want to go to the library to browse the shelves what sort of response do you think you’d get? What about ” Hey, let’s go over to the new library to check out their cool robot book thingamajig”. Now they all want to go to the library. I saw no less than two summer camp groups all excited watching the ASRS at Hunt Library in action. Say what you will, but it got them in the library.
So what’s our choice? We can be purists and expect people to come to our libraries solely for the sake of immersing themselves in the collections. To some extent, we’ve already abandoned that concept. We’re much more likely to offer cafes, patron-initiated curated displays, hi-tech study rooms, big screen televisions, patron-oriented programming and other non-traditional experiences designed to draw people into the library for taking advantage of all that we offer beyond collections. Or we can embrace the idea that a library can offer a well-designed user experience that can get someone in the door and convert them in to a passionate library user. I would have liked to follow that group of campers around as they had their library experience. I wonder what else they discovered that day that might change how they think about and experience libraries.