In the Bay Area, where technology reigns, libraries are rebranding themselves as 21st-century centers of information while staying true to their roots as community centers that provide people with access to resources, programming, and services.

Jill Bourne, director of the San José Public Library system, which includes a main library and 22 branches, says libraries in the Bay Area are working hard to connect people with technology and tools, and working with software developers and companies to develop digital platforms and apps. As one example, Bourne cites the partnership between the San José Public Library and eBay engineers to develop the SJPL Summer Reading Challenge app for Android and Apple devices.

In another such partnership, the Contra Costa County Library is working with Quipu to develop its Discover & Go online service, which offers members free or discounted tickets to cultural institutions throughout the Bay Area. That program has been widely adopted by libraries throughout the region.

In San José, it’s not just the library system that is keeping pace with technology, but also the library sciences. In August 2014, the School of Library and Information Science at San José State University changed its name to the School of Information, or iSchool for short. The director, Sandra Hirsh, says the new name “better represents the school’s current programs and future initiatives, and is keeping pace with the evolving information profession.” The program has expanded its offerings beyond a master’s degree in library and information science and was one of the first schools in the field to move to exclusively online education.

Hirsh says the school is “always innovating and evaluates and updates its curriculum to align with the job market.” New initiatives on the horizon include an expanded focus on cyber-security and big data. In spring 2016, the school plans to launch a new advanced certificate program in strategic management of digital assets and services.

Hirsh says the iSchool is quick to adopt new technologies that advance the online learning environment. Executives from eBay and Google lend their expertise and guidance as members of the school’s International Advisory Council and the International Advisory Board of the Center for Information Research and Innovation. Because the school is online, students can gain real-world experience at leading high-tech companies, regardless of where they live.

Upgrades and Updates in S.F.

In San Francisco, any rumors of the waning relevance of libraries are immediately put to rest. One only need to look to the San Francisco Public Library system to see that libraries are, as city librarian Luis Herrera says, “more relevant than ever.”

The SFPL annual report from 2013–2014 shows that the library had nearly seven million visits during the year and the circulation of e-collections, about one-tenth of the total circulation, nearly doubled in size. Part of this success is because the SFPL system, which includes the main library and 27 neighborhood branches, benefited from the largest capital improvement project in its history, when voters passed a $106 million bond measure in 2000 that called for the renovation of 16 branches and the construction of eight new buildings. It also enabled the SFPL to expand hours dramatically, with 19 of its locations now open seven days a week. “We are fortunate to have tremendous community support and stable funding. San Franciscans really understand the role of libraries and the quality of life and cultural value that libraries provide,” Herrera says.

Herrera says SFPL staff has long anticipated the need to “make libraries relevant in the 21st century.” He adds that the renovations, additions, and expanded hours are an acknowledgment of the changes needed in the libraries’ physical infrastructure, as well as the increased use of e-media. “A lot of our libraries are beautiful Carnegies that weren’t accessible,” Herrera says, referring to the seven branch libraries built by money donated by Andrew Carnegie in 1901. “These renovations changed that, and created a renaissance for neighborhood branches.”

The SFPL has also focused heavily on making technology accessible, Herrera says. “Last year we provided 600,000 hours of free public computing for our residents.” Another part of the project focused on what he calls the “third space”: community meeting rooms. “We realized that libraries are now the civic anchors in our neighborhood,” Herrera notes, adding that attendance for SFPL programs has jumped 20% over the last year.

Herrera says libraries are “still about reading and accessing information—it’s just the formats are changing.” The SFPL has seen more and more young people visiting the library, as well as increased demand for e-media, e-books, and audiobooks, which requires collections to be much more diverse in terms of format. “We are spending a considerable amount in e-learning and e-media: 29% of our budget is e-media,”Herrera adds.

The SFPL has also repurposed some of the spaces at its main library, including a remodel of its fifth floor to house a new learning center, the Bridge at Main, and a resource center for veterans. In addition to traditional programs for adults who never learned to read, the Bridge offers classes on digital literacy, including teaching children, seniors, and recent immigrants how to use technology to access available resources. Some branches offer automated laptop-lending kiosks.

A space that will open right before June’s ALA conference is the Mix at SFPL, a 21st-century learning space for 13–18-year-olds that focuses on digital literacy and engagement. Designed with the help of a teen advisory board, the Mix includes a maker space, a video and audio production studio, a performance space, and computer access. “It’s a great place for collaborating with peers, because it’s all about connected learning,” Herrera says. “That’s how young people engage in learning about topics they are interested in. This affords a whole other environment for learning.” He adds that the venture has invited partners to share their expertise—from the California Academy of Sciences to the Bay Area Video Coalition and Microsoft. “We want to connect young folks to the tech sector.”

Herrera says the SFPL has also just rolled out its Techmobile: a repurposed bookmobile that features computer workstations, a robotics curriculum, a 3-D printer, and Surface Pro tablets donated by Microsoft. “It’s an exciting hybrid approach to providing access,” he adds, noting that traditional bookmobiles are still around and the SFPL has one stationed outside a single room occupancy hotel in the city.

In San José, Bourne says the SJPL is also developing a mobile maker space called the Maker[Space]Ship, a “21st-century bookmobile” to be built this year. Bourne says the SJPL also circulates tools like Makey Makey kits, Arduino boards, and Squishy Circuits Kits, which promote technology literacy and the development of applied skills, as well as provide coding classes for children and teens.

Success Through Partnerships

Another innovative partnership is the SFPL’s collaboration with the Internet Archive, which aims to build the world’s largest digital library. That partnership will give the SFPL hardware to digitize its collections, providing users greater access to archival material. The library’s Digital Imaging Garage and Innovation (DIGI) Center partners with tech companies to scan archives and teach nonprofit groups how to digitize their assets.

Collaboration with the technology sector appears to be a key to libraries’ future success. Herrera says the SFPL is working with the Digital Public Library of America to create a service hub that would offer some resources and collections to smaller libraries, as well as help them with digitization. This distributed network of libraries and academic and cultural institutions—rather than isolated locations with individual collections—is part of a larger vision to keep libraries relevant.

The SFPL has also launched a new online discovery layer with Biblio-Commons software, which allows patrons to connect with millions of users nationwide, as well as a mobile app. Herrera says, “All of these projects align with our key priorities, providing access to technology and promoting reading. We are a high energy organization that is looking at the evolving change of the urban library landscape.”

One of San Francisco’s oldest libraries is the Mechanics’ Institute Library, a membership-based independent library designed to serve the public. Founded in 1854, the library was created in the “belief that knowledge and information is the pathway to a better society, something that is in the DNA of San Francisco,” says Ralph Lewin, executive director of the Mechanics’ Institute. “The library was also open to anyone of any race and gender before the Civil War, and they used to hold fairs that drew 600,000 visitors.” As San Franciscans struggle with the rapidly changing identity of the city, he says, the Mechanics’ Institute Library is holding on to its core values: innovation and democracy. “The idea of a library was a radical move to make knowledge accessible to everyone, and it’s still a radical idea.”

Lewin started as executive director in September 2014, and updating the relevancy of the Mechanics’ Institute’s programming for a wider range of audiences is one of his goals. To that end, the library recently partnered with San Francisco’s Litquake to offer members classes with well-known writers. At the library, he says, use of e-books is increasing, and the fastest-growing segment is members under 40.

Lewin notes that as community spaces in S.F. are shrinking, “libraries are relevant because they step into that space, providing a place where people can come together and have conversations about things that matter.” He adds, “For a democratic society, it’s very important we preserve and value those spaces.”

Bay Area Spotlight 2015: All Our Coverage