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Embracing the Long Game

by R. Toby Greenwalt on February 21, 2013

Take a breath and a bow, librarians. Barring a Mayan apocalypse or a clumsy intern tripping over the Internet’s master control switch, we’ve survived yet another year. To deal with technology is to constantly deal with change, and 2012 certainly brought its fair share of changes to our doorstep.

We saw e-book sales figures surpass overall hardcover sales,1 and circulation figures grow by orders of magnitude.2 We’ve watched Pinterest  become the fourth largest traffic source on the web,3 not to mention becoming a massive hub for user engagement and sharing. Librarians have reached beyond their traditionally insular bubbles, making a concerted showing at the massive South by Southwest Interactive technology conference,4 and launching LibraryLab, a branded channel on megablog Boing Boing.5 Online resources like Code Academy have given us better insight into software both purchased and homegrown, and we’ve created support networks like the ALA Connect Code Year group6 to further our development. This willingness to tinker is affecting our events, leading to unconventional learning spaces such as unconferences, Mini Maker Faires, and TEDx events. And that’s just the stuff we’ve looked at in this column.

That’s a lot of sudden change, right? Looking at these trends in the aggregate, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Don’t worry, I’m going to let you in on a secret: None of these things (with the possible exception of Pinterest) emerged overnight. Make magazine launched seven years ago, but it’s only  now that the idea of a maker movement has really entered the popular zeitgeist. South by Southwest is a behemoth now, but it took the better part of two decades to get there. And lest we forget, commercial e-readers have been on the market for nearly fifteen years. It takes an awfully long time to build an overnight success.

I’ll share another secret with you: We can play this long game just as well as any other innovator out there. Even for an enormous, well-funded organization like TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), it takes a serious time investment to build an audience. Libraries across the country already have hundreds, if not thousands, of users who are all too willing to give us feedback as we bring new information products and services into the community. Will all of these new ideas succeed? Of course not. It wouldn’t be library science without a little experimentation, and some of those experiments are going to fail. But occasionally, an idea is going to succeed. And when it does, it creates an opportunity to reshape the notion of what our libraries can do. One such example can be found at the Oak Park (Ill.) Public Library (OPPL), just west of Chicago.

Inside the Idea Box

The Idea Box7 is a nine-by-thirteen-foot space located in the opening vestibule of OPPL’s main library building. Originally designed as a coffee shop, the space is now a constantly changing interactive environment for art and conversation. Unlike a digital media lab or a makerspace, however, the Idea Box is focused on single-serving experiences. One month might have patrons rearranging small LED lights to create constellations on the walls. Another month might have a visitor posing for a green-screen photo with an oversized library card, and choosing their favorite exotic location to have superimposed in the background. These individual contributions accumulate over the run of the installation. Much of the joy, for staff and patrons alike, comes from seeing the space change over time.

The genesis of Idea Box came during the library’s last strategic planning session, fueled by a library brainstorming initiative they called Spark8. Monica Harris, OPPL’s customer service manager, described the process: “We had people from all over the library looking at crazy things. One of our assistant directors, Jim Madigan, said, ‘We’re very focused on art here in Oak Park. We have a lot of great art in the library. We have one art gallery, but what if we open a second art space. We could call it the Idea Box.’ The Spark Team liked that idea, and they ran with it. They said, ‘OK, we’ll call it Idea Box, we’ll put things in there, we’re not entirely sure what’s happening with it yet, but I think it sounds really good.’”9

As the person charged with overseeing the Idea Box, Harris saw an opportunity to build a new type of participatory space. Taking a cue from  museums such as the Denver Art Museum and the work of Nina Simon,10 Idea Box is designed to draw patrons in from the moment they enter the
building, and get them interacting with the space and one another. A magnetic poetry kit may seem like a simple idea. But two dozen kits spread out across the walls? Once people start writing, reading, and remixing the words on the walls, things can get interesting.

Visitors can even start playing with the rules of the Idea Box itself. One month had patrons writing their favorite book titles on colored Post-It Notes and sticking them to the walls. A note appeared one day that read “Put check marks next to the titles you’ve read.” By the end of the month, visitors to the Idea Box were checking off notes and posting additional “comments” to notes other people had left. What started off as a very simple experience had developed into a conversational space.

This is reminiscent of the way hashtags evolved on Twitter, where users would add a “#hashtag” to their tweets as a way of self-reflexively commenting on them. Once the practice became widespread, Twitter started hyperlinking them, and hashtags are now one of the biggest ways tweets are organized, searched for, and monetized. Small ideas can have tremendous ripple effects.

It’s here that Idea Box takes a major cue from the way communities emerge and develop online. Harris explained, “If you have something new and fresh online, all of a sudden you can meet hundreds or thousands of other people that might want to talk about the same things you want to talk about. We’re trying to do the same thing on the hyperlocal scale, where we can get that kind of participatory feeling going in a way that might be with your neighbors.”11

These experiences—which can often be consumed in just a few minutes—help to introduce what Harris calls “surprise and delight” into the library visit, helping to improve the overall experience. But the experience is just the beginning. As the Idea Box develops, so does OPPL’s approach to customer service. The library created this section by splitting the circulation department into two groups: (1) those who keep materials flowing in and out of the library and (2) those devoted to front-line customer service, merchandising, and maintaining the Idea Box. The relationships built via these day-today patron interactions give this department a natural advantage when dealing with the public. As the department develops, staff may end up taking on larger outreach efforts, both in person and online.

Thanks to an enthusiastic staff, a supportive board, and slew of new ideas, OPPL is positioning itself as an experiential environment for community interaction. And they’ve managed to do it at a fraction of the cost. Harris said, “I think libraries tend to get hung up on the initial cost of developing a digital media lab or a makerspace, where they think it’s something they might like to do years in the future. We’re really interested in creating some of those things too, but this was a way for us to jump in and get our hands dirty right away.”12

Getting patrons involved with simpler participatory tasks projects can often do a better job of preparing your community for much larger endeavors. “I’ve worked in tiny rural libraries with no budget, and I could still make a Post-It wall,” Harris said.13 There’s a chance that those Post-Its are priming OPPL’s patrons for a much bigger level of interaction.


The end of the year is always a time to take stock of what you’ve done, and to set some goals for the road ahead. It’s easy to be tempted to take on the largest goal possible, to create complex (and expensive) projects that the public may not even associate with a library. I’ve certainly run into my share of “whoa, really?” expressions when telling community members about my library’s digital media lab.

But here’s one last secret: it may not always seem like it, but time is on our side. Our services aren’t fixed points—they’re vectors, constantly moving our organizations and patrons in a specific direction. With that in mind, I urge you to think strategically about how you can get your community ready for more participatory library services. Let’s use 2013 to build the library of 2023. All it takes is the right idea.


  1. Jason Boog, “eBook Revenues Top Hardcover,” GalleyCat, June 15, 2012, accessed Sept. 15, 2012.
  2. As of September 2012, year-to-date e-book circulation has grown by 131 percent at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library.