The library is a smart city’s ‘hub for digital intelligence’

As one of the most trusted spaces and sources of information, libraries are playing an increasingly important role in smart city initiatives.

Credit: Credit: Adeline Kon / Smart Cities Dive

Cailin Crowe, Smart Cities Dive, Jan. 27, 2020

When the founders of Library Land first decided to join forces, it was to start a PR agency — and they needed to find a good spot to meet. Instead of opting for a Starbucks or a WeWork, the two settled on a quiet study room at a library in Newton, MA. 

The duo, Adam Zand and Greg Peverill-Conti, tried their luck with a different library for their next meeting. Over 200 libraries later, the pair has leveraged the public spaces to launch the Library Land Project, a site that hosts reviews, maps and information regarding libraries around the U.S.

Zand and Peverill-Conti’s library tour has opened their eyes to the seemingly endless ways that libraries can be used in a city, like teaching residents how to use 3D printers or troubleshooting Netflix log-in issues.

“They play really rich and diverse roles… as a place to bring technology to the community,” Peverill-Conti’s told Smart Cities Dive. “They’re becoming a kind of hub for digital intelligence in their communities.”

As one of the most trusted spaces and sources of information, libraries are playing an increasingly important role in smart cities. And as cities partner with libraries to disseminate information about municipal services, close digital divides and boost civic engagement, that role will likely continue to evolve. 

cambridge central library
Cambridge, MA Central Library. | Credit: Library Land Project 

A ‘city within a city’

Libraries can be essential partners for cities in their work to roll out initiatives and connect residents with crucial services, experts say. 

Libraries are community gathering places that play a convening role in most cities, said Mandy Bishop, program manager for the City of Columbus, OH, in an interview with Smart Cities Dive. For Columbus’ smart city efforts, the library plays acts as a transportation convener.

As part of Columbus’ Smart Mobility Project, the city plans to use a library as a smart mobility hub. The hub will include a smart kiosk, car-share spaces, dockless e-bikes and e-scooters, and pick-up and drop-off locations for yellow cabs, Bishop said. It will bring those different mobility options together in one space to help the city learn how people move from place to place.

The estimated cost of the city’s planned hub is $55,000, according to Bishop, and will be funded as part of the city’s contribution to their $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grant as the winner of the 2016 USDOT Smart City Challenge.

In Wichita, KS, the city has plans to use libraries as centers to share information about initiatives to the public, Smart City Coordinator Michael Barnett told Smart Cities Dive via email. The libraries could be used as pavilions for citizens to interact with technology, such as gunshot detection tech, and to better understand how it works.

The DC Public Library also plans to team up with city services for the $211 million reconstruction of the 440,000-square-foot Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, set to reopen next year​, according to Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the DC Public Library system.

Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library
Rendering of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. | Credit: DC Public Library 

The new space will be a “city within a city,” he told Smart Cities Dive. “We are going to be creating ample learning opportunities for residents through emerging technology spaces but also creating ample room for government agencies to set up shop for city services with our building.” 

The library will leverage its “prime location” to potentially provide services like DC Health Link with a physical office space within the library for direct connection with city residents.

It’s uncommon for a library “to devote physical walls and doors to a host of partner organizations that will be living in the library for long periods of agreed upon time,” he said. Through that potential partnership, residents could learn about their insurance options, and the library could even support those services with corresponding programming or even a curated selection of books.

Chicago Public Libraries (CPL) is also no stranger to teaming up with other departments to provide more equitable services and experiences to residents. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and CPL partnered on the development of three city-owned spaces that function as libraries and public housing, providing a number of safety and community benefits to children, seniors and people with disabilities.

The partnership also opened up new funding opportunities for CPL, which originally didn’t have any capital or property available in the areas where it wanted to build a new library. By partnering with CHA, CPL could access the federal funding via CHA through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Chipping away at the digital divide

Ten percent of U.S. adults don’t use the internet, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, which found income and education are two key factors that influence if someone uses the internet. Eighteen percent of adults in households that earn less than $30,000 a year, for example, are offline. 

Cue libraries. CPL is the largest provider of free Wi-Fi in Chicago, spokesperson Olivia Kunciotold Smart Cities Dive. Their digital services include hotspot rentals and a cyber navigation program to help residents complete tasks like setting up email addresses, building a digital resume or helping seniors connect with loved ones over technology. 

CPL also hosts the YouMedia program, a teen learning initiative with an emphasis on “digital media and the maker movement,” with notable alumni including Grammy-award winning artist Chance the Rapper. 

Beyond helping famous rappers record their mixtapes, libraries can also teach people skills as basic as clicking a mouse. 

Jessamyn West, a library technologist working in Orange County, VT, is deeply familiar with the range of digital skills that librarians and libraries provide residents. West hosts “tech drop-ins,” including a weekly drop-in at the Kimball Public Library in Randolph, VT. People have used the time to learn from neighbors and work together to address a range of tech issues, including updating the prices of candy and syrup for a maple production company’s website.

Over time, she’s noted a shift in tech needs, from basic requests to more complex questions like, “What is the cloud?” There’s also a growing sense of fear among some people, she said, which librarians can be well-suited to address.

“The digital divide is shifting,” West told Smart Cities Dive. “What we see more and more nowadays is the empowerment divide because people don’t see themselves in online spaces and they have a lot of fear about interacting there … part of what we do in libraries is help untangle the knot of what’s keeping people from using technology to solve their problems.”  

DC Public Library
Rendering of a fabrication lab where residents can use tools like 3D printing technology.  | Credit: DC Public Library 

Civic engagement by design

Libraries have also transitioned into active spaces for civic engagement, according to DC’s Reyes-Gavilan. 

Digital citizenry is a main area of focus, he said. Libraries help residents understand what online life is “really all about.”

“While the world seems to have lost its patience for people who are not online, the library is still a place where we can help people get a leg up and serve as a real engine of equity in terms of not only access but also learning and training,” he said.

The DC Public Library hired its first civic engagement coordinator, Diana Veiga, who is responsible for registering people to vote and helping with similar civic participation issues. With almost four million visitors a year, the DC Public Library is an anchor agency involved in the 2020 census efforts, Reyes-Gavilan said. 

Libraries can be great resources to help count the people who are typically hardest to count, or who might be afraid to complete the census due to political rhetoric. Even though libraries are government agencies, they are viewed as nonpartisan and, in turn, less threatening, according to Reyes-Gavilan. People who might be hesitant to walk into a government building may not be as afraid to walk into a library.

In Charlotte, NC, a $135 million campaign is underway for the New Main Library to “create a state-of-the-art public space that can serve not just as a repository for books, but as a true commons for all the city residents,” with a $10 million contribution from The Knight Foundation. 

“While the world seems to have lost its patience for people who are not online, the library is still a place where we can help people get a leg up and serve as a real engine of equity…”

Richard Reyes-Gavilan

Executive Director, DC Public Library system

The redesigned New Main Library wants to be the central hub for civic engagement in the city center, using design and technology to attract patrons. Some of those aspects can include serving coffee; sending push notifications to patrons’ phones if they have a book due; and providing digital displays to entice more residents to use the space. 

The new library will also have a “genius bar concept” design similar to what’s seen in Apple stores, according to Charles Thomas, a Knight Foundation director. When a patron enters the main library, they are currently greeted by a large desk that “impedes” the ability to walk in. The new library will have more kiosks and librarians “floating around” asking questions and interacting with patrons rather than being situated at large desks, he said.

The new design concept will help encourage civic participation in part by supporting the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a group of local journalism organizations partnered with the Knight Foundation. The collaborative’s digital domain is hosted by the library, as is their physical meeting space for conversations with sources, community members and each other. 

WGBH Boston Public Library
WGBH Public Radio Studio at Boston Public Library. | Credit: Library Land Project 

“The library is such a trusted space, so to bring that trust into a journalism space, is a great asset,” Knight Foundation Director of National Strategy and Technology Innovation Lilian Coral told Smart Cities Dive. 

Libraries can also serve as hubs for community members to interact and engage. As technology continues to advance and more people shop online, fewer people enter retail stores and public spaces, she said. The Charlotte Main Library is emblematic of the many libraries that are re-imagining the public realm and creating all-encompassing spaces for people to meet, read, work, learn and play. 

Addressing the key challenges

As cities continue to bring libraries into the fold with new tech initiatives, challenges like funding and data privacy will inevitably crop up. 

San Antonio, TX is one such place that has “embraced the concept of smart cities,” Director of the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) and President of the Public Library Association, Ramiro Salazar told Smart Cities Dive. The city’s public library system has also adopted a smart city lens, he said. That lens includes using technology and data to “work smarter” and enhance the customer experience, according to Salazar. 

Effective use of technology and data can help the system connect with customers “very much like Amazon,” he said. Similar to the e-commerce shopping experience, the library can use personalized data to suggest book titles. If a child rents the “Wimpy Kids” series, the library could suggest another popular children’s book like the “Dog Man” series, according to a SAPL spokesperson. 

But for all the benefits of a data-driven library system, it can still be a challenge to get adequate resource. SAPL has a pilot program that offers free Wi-Fi hotspots to members, an initiative they would like to make permanent. Currently, they offer about 100 Wi-Fi hotspots, Salazar said, but they’d like to boost that to 500 hotspots. “We just don’t have the resources to offer more,” he said.

Enthusiasm for smart city initiatives could be a solution to those very constraints. SAPLcould leverage the momentum for smart city concepts in their next budget development process to help make a compelling case to city authorities, Salazar said. 

Libraries will also need to grapple with questions around data privacy. The technology companies that help power and fund smart city initiatives have not always had a perfect record protecting customer privacy. That tension will likely need to be addressed. “To better participate in smart city initiatives, libraries need to rethink how they can use and share data,” said Reyes-Gavilan.

“Protecting customer privacy is a foundational tenet of public libraries. It sometimes creates an unwillingness to share data that may ultimately help cities improve their services. The more adept we become at using data without compromising privacy, the better we can tailor services to meet evolving resident needs.”