Libraries and the Cultural Gap

My library story isn’t much different than most. It was my place as a kid to get books, to read, and sometimes meet friends. By the time I got to college, the library was where I spent a lot of time studying. Academic libraries stay open to the wee hours of the night, and I was there sometimes until the doors closed, and I wasn’t alone. I met classmates and friends there all the time. It was a safe place for student community to go, study and hang.

As a student, I had a work-study job in the music library on campus. I don’t think I realized that music on any level was available in libraries. The collection was overwhelming. I was a music lover before that job, and after three years of listening to different genres from all over the world, my mind and musical palette were expanded. Who would have known that I would end up working in libraries years later?

My library career began in 2001 at Detroit Public Library. My definition of library changed drastically. It was beyond books, beyond studying, beyond meeting friends. It was a cultural mecca, and many times the experiences were absolutely free:

  • – Author lectures from local and nationally known
  • – Jazz concerts
  • – Indie film festival
  • – Storytime for adults
  • – Holiday festivals that filled all the floors of the Main Library
  • – Spanish classes
  • – Network event at a local bar hosted by the library

This list could, of course, go on and on. The library is a comfortable cultural hub sitting in many of the neighborhoods in our cities, accessible to all and affordable to all. Comfortable is an important attribute. You can have great events and activities but if people do not feel comfortable coming to your space, if it is too unfamiliar to them, they will not come. Some of the things I experienced at the library are at times only available in theaters, elegant halls, and areas where some people in the neighborhoods have less access or resources to attend. But the library is in several neighborhoods, connected to the people and the community is a natural place to close this cultural gap. Libraries are the missing link to connecting regular, working-class, living life people to more cultural experiences and maybe to a larger part of their community.

As a visual artist, I want to continue to see more quality exhibitions and artwork in libraries.

  • – Remove the myth that art is only for the wealthy
  • – Give more people easier access to art
  • – Give artists and others a chance to share why art is important to everyone
  • – Expand each other’s audiences by gallery audience coming to the library and library audiences going to the gallery
  • – Give emerging artists an opportunity to exhibit work
  • – Give experienced artists a chance to connect with community

As I move on in my library journey, I want to promote libraries more and more as the answer to the cultural gap, and it will be our job to deliver on that promise with activities and space that is comfortable, beautiful and is in the business of cultivating our community and its members.

Libraries and Rapid Prototyping

The design process has been around for ages and has been used by artists, scientists, to the world’s best-known innovators It includes 5 steps:


Designers learn about the target audience. The wants, needs, desires, beliefs and what is meaningful to them.
At this stage, designers define the problem that the service/product will solve in the context of the user.
Here is the step where designers brainstorm all the different ideas and solutions that could be created to solve the problem at hand. All ideas are shared, reviewed and helps in getting to the prototype
Here is where you develop models of what could become the final products and where you take the interesting ideas from the ideation step into solid prototypes that can be tested
Prototypes are given to potential users to experience with the goal of receiving feedback. The way you choose to test can be an exercise you connecting with your audience in a personable way.

Rapid prototyping is a quick, low-cost, high-quality development of prototypes that allows for testing a product, service, idea or experience before developing it into a final deliverable or outcome.

In the last decade, urban planners, artists and activists have used rapid prototyping to improve neighborhoods, gathering places and to make cities more human-centric. You have probably seen pop up stores, parking lots, and parking spaces turned into gathering places, abandoned lots turned into play areas, movies in the park, streets shut down for walking and bike riding, alleys turned to music venues. These are all part of a movement to build the city into the lifestyles of people.Libraries have used some of these prototype tactics with mobile services, pop-up libraries and even pop up librarians with great success.

Here are other ways and examples prototyping can help your library.

You have a library location that you want to renovate with the hopes of re-connecting with the surrounding community and attracting a younger audience. Before starting a fundraising campaign for 5 million, let’s prototype. Take a small area of your library and revamp it with some of the ideas, services, furniture, and activities you want in your renovated library. Invite community, potential donors and staff and see how they enjoy the experience and who you attract. You may find that a renovation is not needed or connect to new investors as well as the audiences.

Library systems tend to copy activities of other libraries. Doing what competitors do is a normal business practice, but innovation lies in customer-centred activities. Maybe 3-D printing activities work for Seattle, but does it work for your community? Create a weekend sampler. Give your community a taste of several activities and events over one weekend and during the activities, provide an interactive way to collect more information about events and activities from participants. Maybe a wall of post-its where customers can leave ideas and suggestions.

A large part of libraries’ budget goes to its collection, using forms, committees and bestseller lists to make the best choices of books, periodicals, music and databases that customers will use and possibly enjoy. Still too many times parts of your collection go un-used. Here is another opportunity to allow your customers to sample before you buy. Talk with potential database vendors and ask for a free week or two of services for customers. Have your committee pick several books to promote and have customers choose the top three while also promoting your selection form. Create playlists with your streaming sites and see what songs, ebooks and movies are the most popular.

The pattern here is prototyping and testing needs customers to be successful. This is one reason clients minimize or skip these steps. It can be challenging to engage customers, but the results can be invaluable; more support, higher awareness of your services by customers, more products and services that are customer-centered and a better use of your resources.

Libraries and Interior Design

Our library buildings are usually a collection of different architectural styles, floor plans, and layouts that we inherited over the years. A hodgepodge of spaces that we make work for our needs and the needs of the community. It’s a challenge from a brand perspective to take these different buildings and somehow make them cohesive; which brings up this question. Should our library locations be a consistent visual experience or is the mishmash of spaces part of library brand?

There are different school of thoughts on this. Some believe that like Barnes and Nobel or Target, that when a customer enters one of our libraries they should be familiar with its layout and decor because it is the same from one library location to another. For examples: Teens areas in a specific place, art books in a particular section, same tile used on our floors, same color paint on the walls, same wayfinding signs, same decor.

Then, there are others who feel that the libraries should connect to the system but also the community it resides. For instance, if a branch is in a neighborhood filled with adobe houses, large trees, and vibrant colors, with a population mostly of seniors, the library should be built with these characteristics in mind and infused with the visual components of your library brand.

Finally, you have systems that believe (or allow) their libraries to look like an elementary school room with things made from construction paper and felt.

Where do I stand? I love consistency and think that library locations in your system should have consistent decor, naming conventions, wayfinding signs, and experiences. Your library is one system and interior design, floor plans, materials, events, and programming should be consistent across the board to convey to customers and staff that you are one library system.

I appreciate customer-based customization and understand its value. For instance, you should have wayfinding signs with multiple languages in neighborhoods where your population speaks several languages. Maybe your kid’s area should be larger in some communities than others because the neighborhood is full of families. If you have a library near a college or in midtown where bars and restaurants are on every other corner, a lounge with laptop stations that sell beverages (teas, coffee, smoothies) may be more fitting than a storytime room. Making decisions like this falls into understanding customers and catering to them, but it should all start from a place of consistency, which is your brand.

Money is needed to make these changes happen. There are only a few ways to get the resources. One, campaigning for it. Connecting with the community and/or with potential corporate sponsorship or partnership to support your financial needs. Two move monies from other parts of your budget and reallocate it for interior design, landscaping, building maintenance and wayfinding signs. I am a firm believer that a larger investment in your spaces will bring people and awareness to your library and its services, which, in turn, will bring the financial support you will need to continue to invest in your library buildings.

Below are links to companies and firms that specialize in furniture. Note, some of them are library-specialists, but you should also look beyond the specialists to help provide the unique and authentically you.


Libraries and Downtime

The world can feel mad, sometimes. We are always doing something for kids, family, friends and ourselves. We work endlessly and, at times,  we go home exhausted. There is hardly time to sit and rest. Time to be still. Doing something every minute of the day is rewarded and worn as a badge of honor for us Americans.

I ascribe to a different ideology. Work less and quality over quantity. More quality experiences over a lot mediocre experiences. Quality time with friends and family over a lot of unrememberable moments. Libraries should follow this philosophy too.

In my 16 years with libraries, I’ve watched us rev up. Every year, doing more events and activities than you can shake a stick at (one of my mother’s favorite sayings). Somewhere down the line, something grew in the library world’s subconscious that said: “to survive and to compete with bookstores, recreational places and such, we must have MORE events, activities, and programs.” I think we may have gone overboard.

Sometimes we are planning one event before finishing the other and doing it without thoughtfulness in planning or understanding how that event fits goals, vision, mission and brand. We run after the new and novel instead of building quality experiences with our core products, services, and spaces. At times, we are just existing in moments that do not lead to real outcomes.

Let’s do differently and keep these things in mind. We do not have to fill every minute with activity. Let’s have 18 – 24-month calendars for our events and programs and in planning them, let us make sure we plan for downtime and post mortem meetings in between our signature events and programs to let our creative minds rest, to learn from our experiences and to enjoy the successes.
Let’s make sure that the experiences in our libraries benefit us and will be appreciated and remembered by our community. That they fit our mission, vision and goals. That it fits our brand philosophies. I leave you with a couple of book to enjoy and a blog on rest and the benefits of it.

Library and Food

Food, glorious food. Once upon a time, libraries did not allow food and beverage on it premises. Understandably. The possibility of damaging materials, computers and attracting pests are huge and things you want to avoid. Yet (there is always a yet), we know that where there is food there are people and there is life. We want life in our libraries. As a solution, libraries have created cafes, lounge spaces and some libraries even reverse the “no food allowed policies” all together to welcome more people to the library spaces. I think this is the right way to go.

All libraries need a designated place for customers to relax, grab something to eat and enjoy the library space. And those spaces need to be inviting, with visually appealing furniture, space to plug up devices and to connect with other people. Make sure to come back and read the post on interior design in May 2017 for ideas.

Back to food. There are other ways to capture the livelihood of food-maniacs and food consumers.

Food trucks: A hot trend has become to pick a day for food trucks to come to your location and let the people enjoy the variety. It is also an excellent way to support local businesses.

Dinners at the Library:  Pick a day out of month, pick a theme to talk about (or a book) and invite people to eat dinner with you at the library. It would be a rememberable and intimate experience that people would talk about and make others jealous and sign up for the next one. Invite an author, a local celebrity or maybe a chef.

Local Chefs: How many times have you gone to a restaurant, ate a great meal and wanted the recipe? A class with the local chefs can finally fulfill those dreams. Whether on video or at one of your branches. People will eat this up (pun intended).

A page on your site devoted to food and food resources: This is an obvious thing to do, but because it is evident it is forgotten. Your page can include books, databases, magazines, food-inspired music, favorite recipes by locals and librarians, information on how to support those who are challenged with getting healthy food or food period.

A collaboration with local restaurants: Sometimes libraries have to go to the mountain, and the mountain, in this case, is the restaurants or the food trucks. With a touch of style, you can provide a menu of library services to the returant goers and maybe even a book or two. Whatever fits your goals and budget.

With everything, before you commit to any ideas, take a moment to look and see if it fits your mission, vision, and goals. Does it fit your brand and will your customers enjoy the experience? If so, bon appétit.

UPDATES: Wanted to share some links of libraries with similar projects listed above:

Thoughts Without Inhibition and Judgment

This page is for ideas, thoughts, and innovation on library, style, and services. No judgments here, just “what ifs” that can become make reality with determination and smart, stylish thinking. Writings on food, innovation, race, music and other topics that are relevant to our world and communities will be shared here.  Join the conversations.

Libraries and Small Business

There are so many library resources for start-ups and small businesses to use that can help entrepreneurs reach their goals; classes, databases, workshop series, books and more. But what if libraries could provide a little bit more and at the same time benefit from it? Here is an idea.

Libraries have flexible spaces with our branches. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have pop-up stores in our libraries, selling quality products and wares from community entrepreneurs? And, how amazing would it be for libraries to advertise small businesses on their websites? A small fee could be paid to libraries for the space and advertisement opportunity.

Pop Up shops are becoming a standard practice for businesses, especially new businesses who are looking to connect with customers in spaces, but do not yet have the resources to buy a location. Libraries can be those spaces that house the next amazing business and provide a platform for those businesses to be seen and supported.

I already hear the reasons why you may not think this could work. I know, many libraries cannot take in profit or money of any kind. Maybe building codes or even policies may make this seem impossible. But I say, commit to the idea and work on ways to make it happen. Don’t focus on why it cannot.

Here are a few links to pop-ups:

Of course criteria would have to be developed to ensure that the businesses are in line with your own business practices, beliefs and goals. But, if you are looking for ways to bring style to your libraries this is it. Not to mention, that there are opportunities to even make a profit. What if your library created its own store selling products from your pop-up community.  Think about it. Does it work for your community? Does it fit your brand and mission? Then, let’s do it.

Libraries and Art

Art on the walls is a simple, beautiful way to bring style to your libraries. It can make space intimate, inviting and rememberable. Most library systems have an art collection but how deliberate are we in choosing what we display? How deliberate are we in engaging the art community and being part of the art world? Here are a few ideas that could help you bring beauty and style to your library while connecting to artists, art organizations and art supporters.

Artists-in-residence programs invite artists and curators into your library and provide them space to create art, do research and more. Artist-in-residence teach classes to customers, create custom works for your library, complete research and could help you pick and display works that support your vision, mission and brand.


  • Professional artists teaching your customers fun and new art skills
  • Access to artist/curator expertise
  • Connecting you library to new organizations and audiences
  • Possible commissions of work specific to your library space
  • New energy

Displaying your collection:
Many of our libraries hold collections of photos and other materials that, if displayed, could be visually appealing and fascinating for viewers to see.   A curator or artists with background in curating is needed to get the effects you want. If you have the budget to bring a curator on board, that would be a sound investment. If not, connecting with galleries or universities may be a way to get professional support at a lower cost.


  • Customers get to see and enjoy the library collection (beautifully displayed) which could lead to more inquiries and use

Collaboration with museums and galleries:
Libraries are no strangers to collaborating with museums, but how about a partnership where works from the museums or  galleries are on loan to your library, giving more community members access to art. A program like this can increase awareness for libraries, galleries and museums alike. It can expand your audience and create a visual impact in your libraries that could not have been possible without partnerships of this kind.

Here are a few links on the subject of libraries and art.

Libraries and Homeless

One day, while sitting in front of a library in Houston,  I began talking to a woman. She told me that she was waiting for her husband to come out of the library. As she and I  talked, she shared that she and her husband had been living on the streets for the past six months. They come to the library to look for employment and to find shelter from the elements when needed. She looked to the door of the library and then said, “You know, we like coming to this library because we are treated like human beings.” Evidently, there are some places, even other library locations, where that wasn’t always the case for them. That was upsetting to hear. Everyone, regardless of where they live, should be treated humanely.

How we connect and support the homeless community says a lot about our library and who we are. Aiding the homeless community is part of being a public library system. In the past decade, more libraries have learned that the face of homelessness has changed and includes families, teens, veterans and the mentally ill. It can even be a person with a job who just isn’t getting paid quite enough to get by.  This understanding and the sheer fact that homeless are going to always come to our public buildings has caused library systems to find innovative ways to help.

Some of the more robust programs I have seen include mobile showers, collaborations with food banks, food trucks and library partnerships where small library collections are housed in facilities that provide services to the homeless. Other popular services libraries provide are on staff social workers to give information and support to those in need.

Supporting the homeless is more than providing social services and temporary space, but emotional support. I can remember as a young student having medical issues that kept me from working and attending classes and how insignificant I felt.  It was my volunteer time at libraries and other non-profits that gave me confidence when I needed it. Can we provide volunteer opportunities to help people who are homeless and unemployed build resumes and confidence?

Below are a few articles on innovative programming for the homeless community and different thoughts and philosophy on supporting homeless in urban communities.

Libraries and Politics

Politics is an everyday subject in today’s world. We cannot watch tv or look through our social media feeds or have a conversation without politics and government coming into play. Libraries have been called a neutral place for people to learn about political agendas and voting rights and librarians are trusted to provide non-biased content to all. But is neutral where we want to be? Is neutral positioning going to serve our community best? I do not think so.

Neutral may seem to keep things quiet, but it also keeps things unsaid and people unheard. We do not need neutral space but safe spaces where anyone can openly talk about their views and, at the same time listen to other views with less judgment and more effort to understand. Neutral does nothing. Taking sides doesn’t help, but being a space for truly open conversation could make a difference. We can disagree and still work together. Libraries are the spaces for that.

It is our job to not only provide general information about voting but to make sure people understand what is really at stake when they mark their ballots. It is our place in this process to help people grasp the issues around the environment, why we are focused on Syria and North Korea, why Black Lives Matter and how to support our police departments and military. Let’s guide our community with information about the electoral college and the criteria of running for the different positions entail; what proposals are passing and not passing would do to our cities and neighborhoods, what our libraries stand for when it comes to education, civil rights, human rights and on and on.

It takes courage to do this work and more resolve to do it in a manner that is beyond giving facts and more on empowering through information.