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Coworking in libraries and other ways these civic spaces are evolving

In Melbourne, the State Library is moving with the times and the changing needs of the local population. From start up spaces to podcasting equipment and more.

Libraries are some of our most treasured civic spaces but they are no longer reserved for just quiet reading. They’re evolving to meet the demands of changing communities.

The State Library Victoria, for instance, is undergoing a major transformation program. Its $88.1 million vision for the future involves coworking, family-friendly activities and podcasting equipment. 

Anna Burkey, who will head up the StartSpace coworking space in the library when it opens in 2020, says coworking in a library makes sense because people are already using them as public workspaces – as many as 15 per cent of all visitors.

“People have always used the space in this way.

“Libraries provide two things: access to fiction and storytelling; and access to fact and non-fiction, how-to books, and all that kind of thing.

“That factual side plays into the mix. It’s about everyone having access to knowledge so they can have a different chance in life.”

StartSpace is designed for fledgling startups and people with an “inkling” of a business idea.

Although there are other libraries with coworking spaces in them, as far as Burkey knows their space is the only library coworking that will combine business training.

The plan is to build a new community of entrepreneurs by giving them the necessary training and the environment to grow rapidly, and the space has been zoned accordingly. 

The majority of seats (around 178) are free for drop ins with a smaller amount of paid spaces on a mezzanine level, which is designed for the next stage in a startups progression before the businesses get big enough to start paying for permanent homes elsewhere. 

People will sign up as members and get a key to come in and out. This will help create a community feel where people recognise the other people using the space. 

Burkey says people using libraries for work tend to come in early – before 10am – and later in the evenings and weekends.

“We will be open 70 hours a week, as we are trying to bring in new types of entrepreneurs.”

The training will also be tailored to the various stages of start up development, with free workshops and training on offer with the option to pay for more bespoke assistance later on. 

Burkey says this is a logical service for a library to provide because a lot of this information on business acceleration already exists, and librarians are skilled at finding it and repackaging this into “something really approachable”. 

Future plans

The plan is to work closely with all public libraries in Victoria – around 272 libraries across 47 library authorities – to foster a culture of entrepreneurship. 

“Every library has this and they need to offer services and support, through service space and more.”

What else is changing?

Burkey says just like libraries all over the world the state library in Melbourne is evolving to accommodate the needs of a changing community, while still paying homage to its history as the oldest public library in Australia. 

Before the library closed for renovations there were almost 2 million physical visits annually.

“We’ve now got a booming city that’s really multicultural and bursting at the seams.

“If we look ahead with all the changes with work, globalisation – looking at the stats in youth and mental health rates and financial instability with youth, we are walking into a world a lot of the community services aren’t ready for. So we need to think about how we service this community.”

It’s all about zoning the library to accommodate for all types of people, including children and babies to reflect a densifying city and more families living close to the CBD.

There will now be a purpose built children’s library to get children comfortable around literacy at an early age.

The daily story times have proved to be opportunity for grandparents of migrant families to connect around English as well, with multicultural story times on the table for the future. 

“These are all the kind of pedagogy and learning curriculum ideas that sits behind the spaces that we build.”

There will be increased gallery space to “show off more of what’s in the basement”, such as rare and historic manuscripts. 

Visitors will also have access to podcast recording, printing screens and other specialist equipment that the “wealthy can only otherwise access”.

Upskilling the community on technology and skills of the future will also be a priority.  

Libraries of the future elsewhere

The State Library of NSW is also adapting to a changing world with its DX Lab, which uses digital technology in experimental ways to support engagement with the library’s collections, data sets and services. 

For instance, there was a sound lab structure installed that allowed people to “listen” to a painting by “soundscaping” the different tones, complexities and colours in the works.

Around the world

Elsewhere around the world the Scandinavians are ahead of the curve with their libraries. Dokk1 in Denmark, for example, rings a dong every time a baby to welcome the newborn into the community.

“They are really thinking through what it means to be a community and civic space.”

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