How libraries went beyond books

Libraries are steadily adding AV systems such as virtual reality labs and enterprise-grade conference rooms to boost revenue and patronage. Tim Kridel explores what these and other trends mean for pro AV.

When it opened sometime in the Third Century B.C., the Royal Library of Alexandria had not only books and scrolls, but also a dining room, meeting spaces and a lecture hall. More than 2,200 years later, libraries are rethinking that mix, a process that means opportunities for proAV.

One example is North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt, Jr. Library in the US, named one of the world’s “25 coolest college libraries.” Hunt features bookBot, a robotic system that retrieves books from stacks that pack 2 million into one-ninth the space that traditional shelving uses.

bookBot is a cutting-edge example of how libraries are increasingly moving books into the background—literally and figuratively. At some libraries, that means storing rarely read books at an offsite facility. Sometimes the move includes digitisation so patrons can read the books on tablets and other devices. 

No matter how the move is accomplished, this trend benefits proAV because libraries often fill that space with technology. At Hunt, that includes a visualisation lab featuring 10 projectors and 280 degrees of immersive video.

“They’re able to use the space where the stacks were and create a group collaboration space or a presentation space or some kind of digital media lab,” says James Viviano, senior consultant at The Sextant Group, the firm that advised Hunt.
“We strive to put emerging technologies in students’ hands quickly so they can use these tools in their education and careers. Providing access to VR is a natural continuation of that goal.” 
Like Hunt, the Library of Birmingham in the UK features enterprise-grade conferencing facilities. Those are noteworthy as examples of how libraries—both public and higher ed—see conference space as an increasingly important part of what they offer to patrons. That importance is reflected in budgets as those libraries realise that they have to go big or go home.

“They invested a huge amount in the conference centre,” says Mike Brooman, CEO of Vanti, the integrator for Birmingham. “When it opened, it was one of the most state-of-the-art in the region. So whereas previously libraries kind of gave you this cheap option if you wanted a space—they had a whiteboard if you were lucky—they moved themselves to be right at the top of the region’s event spaces. That generates more revenue.”

The new reality

North Carolina State University also is an example of how libraries are getting into augmented and/or virtual reality (AR/VR). For instance, some libraries have art galleries. So like museums, they’re using AR as a way for patrons to get more, often multimedia information about each piece of art.

“VR provides new ways to interact with information and media, and that is at the heart of library science,” says Pete Schreiner, a North Carolina State University Libraries fellow. “As VR becomes more prevalent in entertainment, education, business, training, etc., librarians are naturally interested in fostering patrons' use of the technology.” 

In the case of college and university libraries, another motivation is to give students opportunities to learn how to develop AR and VR content—skills that are a hot commodity as those technologies go mainstream. For example, Hill Library has a VR studio with multiple VR workstations and staff to help students learn how to use it.

“We strive to put emerging technologies in students’ hands quickly so they can use these tools in their education and careers,” Schreiner says. “Providing access to VR is a natural continuation of that goal. 

“The library is an ideal location for this since it is open to all students and faculty, as opposed to specific departments which may have technology available only to those enrolled in a particular field of study. As with other technologies, people need to try it to discover how it can be applied to improve their work.” 

In the US, Slover Library in Norfolk, Virgina, added a TV studio where high school students and other patrons can learn how to product and edit video. But TV studios, VR labs and other high-tech setups for patrons need someone to run them. That can be an additional ongoing expense that dissuades libraries from implementing them, but not always, as Slover shows. 

“They got some kids who were familiar with the technologies and software to help the students,” Viviano says.

Sign of the times 

Digital signage is another increasingly common technology in libraries. Often the motivation is the same as in verticals such as retail and hospitality: enabling self-service to improve customer satisfaction, save money or both.
“Once you have created digital surrogates of your audiovisual recordings, the job isn’t complete. Now you need to preserve and provide access to the digital files.”
For example, North Carolina State University has signage at both Hunt and its D.H. Hill Library partly to enable wayfinding. So as in convention centres, when people can use signage to find their way around, staff are freed to focus on other tasks. 

“They’re constantly getting questions about where an event is happening and about rooms,” Josh Boyer, head of the user experience department at North Carolina State University Libraries. “The screens are there to answer questions we’re already getting. It’s part of trying to do self-service.” 

At Hill and Hunt, some of the signage is by the “Ask Us” desks. That’s partly because those are where many people go to find out where something is. But it’s also to build awareness of the libraries’ technological offerings and in turn boost the return on those investments because they’re a waste of money if they just collect dust.

“A common conversation with a junior or a senior is, ‘I had no idea that you loaned DSLR cameras or Raspberry Pis or VR headsets,’” Boyer says. 

Fresh content

Like organisations in other verticals, libraries often struggle to come up with content for their signage networks. Some integrators that have done library signage networks say that they come back a year or two later and find them running the same content from when they were installed.  

“When we install signage, our message to clients always is: ‘What content do you have? What’s your strategy for refreshing it?’” says Vanti’s Brooman. “All too frequently, we have projects where it never changes. In many ways, that dates the building. People want fresh content. It’s a shame.”

So as in other verticals, this problem can be an opportunity for integrators that offer content creation as a managed service. But the opportunity has a few nuances in the library space thanks to the digitisation trend. 

Also known as reformatting, this process basically involves converting content such as books, photos, record albums and films into digital formats. Often it’s to preserve content that would be lost as its media deteriorates.  
Lots of levels in a library
“This isn’t really a new issue, but people have become much more aware of how ‘at risk’ audiovisual materials are,” says Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez, Recordings at Risk program associate at the Council on Library and Information Resources. “There are estimates of about 15-20 years before obsolescence and degradation remove any hope of us accessing the unique information held on audiovisual carriers.” 

Recordings at Risk provides libraries with grants to fund digital reformatting projects. Such initiatives are worth mentioning to library clients because that content also can be used on their signage networks. There also can be opportunities to offer libraries help with the reformatting itself. 

“Many of these audiovisual recordings fall under the stewardship of professionals who lack specialised training regarding their description, storage and maintenance needs, as well as knowledge regarding the digital transfer process,” Gonzalez-Fernandez says. “The most straightforward method that is employed by institutions is outsourcing with an audiovisual digitisation vendor. 

“Of course, once you have created digital surrogates of your audiovisual recordings, the job isn’t complete. Now you need to preserve and provide access to the digital files.”

A signage network is a large-scale way to provide initial access. The bigger a library’s collection, the harder it is for most people to understand everything that’s available. Digitisation and signage help with that, too, by building awareness of those collections in the same way that libraries such as North Carolina State University’s use signage to educate students that they can borrow VR headsets and DSLR cameras. 

So one common denominator with all of these examples is that signage helps patrons understand all they can get from that library. This awareness helps make the case for why they should come back on a regular basis or vote for a tuition or tax increase to help fund upgrades.

Slover digitised newspaper clippings and other content about local history and displayed it on a wall. Patrons then could touch on each piece to get more information and then, if they wanted, go to another part of the library to see the original item. 

“It was hard for the public to get a sense of how much they really had in that collection,” says Sextant’s Viviano. “It opened the door to say, ‘Look at all of this interesting information that we have that you have access to.’”
People workign in pods

Bleeding edge

The signage opportunity varies somewhat by library. For example, North Carolina State University has some of the world’s top engineering and technology programs. So it’s no surprise that its library system feels comfortable doing a lot of signage projects on its own. That includes forgoing signage software.

“We decided not to do Four Winds or any of its competitors because we have Web developers,” Boyer says. “We didn’t want to invest the time and money in having one of our Web folks figure out how [that software] works. We figured we’re already making Web content. We can make Web content to fit the screens. So that’s the direction we went.” 
“They realise now that with all of the collaborative technologies out there, this is what students and the public want. They’re catering to the younger generation.”
Some of North Carolina’s signage tells patrons about events and meeting room availability. That content uses systems that the libraries already had in place.  

“Events is just pulling data from a Google calendar [that’s reading Google calendars for various rooms],” Boyer says. “We’re already keeping track of all this stuff, so showing it on a screen isn’t too much work.” 

Of course, not every library has that kind of in-house expertise, especially when it comes to technologies that libraries traditionally haven’t used. In those situations, there are ample opportunities for AV firms to educate libraries about the technology options for enabling their visions.

“The majority are not familiar, which is why firms like The Sextant Group get hired,” Viviano says. “They might have a vision, but they don’t know how they go about it.” 

But those visions have a lot of AV at heart because libraries see technology as key to staying relevant. 

“We’re getting descriptions such as: ‘We want it to be bleeding edge. We want it to be technology rich. We want it to be engaging. We want it to be innovative. We want it to be inspiring,’” Viviano says. “In higher ed, you’ll hear phrases like, ‘We want a competitive edge.’ They want these buildings to be iconic. They want them to make a difference for students and faculty.

“They realise now that with all of the collaborative technologies out there, this is what students and the public want. They’re catering to the younger generation.”

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