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Duval envisions the library of the future. (There may be noisy spots.)

Library books.jpg
Libraries will become more than a silent home for books.

Less room for books, more space for work and meetings.

That's the direction the Jacksonville Public Library plans to take at a handful of its urban branches after a yearlong study on library usage and community input.

The "urban branch envisioning project" focused on five Jacksonville libraries built between 1959 and 1968 that library staff says haven't seen significant changes, despite drastic changes in community needs.

"All of them were built with library services that were in mind in 1959," Jacksonville Public Library Director Tim Rogers said. "The reason why we do these studies is not because we don't know that libraries are important. What we're trying to figure out is, what's the best way forward?"

Brentwood, Dallas Graham, Murray Hill, Eastside, and Westbrook had sample renovations designed to outline how the limited space at each branch could be used to have more space for kids to work and socialize after school, have meeting rooms that could fit actual meetings, and work around architectural quirks and road layouts hostile to pedestrian library visitors.

"20 years ago, we would not have imagined some of the services that we in libraries are providing to our citizens, our customers. But what we have to do is think about the fact that whatever we do, over the next five years, will be there for the next 25 years at least," Rogers said.

Jacksonville administrators used the services of library consultant group Aaron Cohen Associates, with its president, Alex Cohen, serving as a lead in the envisioning project.

According to Cohen, libraries are an intangible space, beyond just a place to borrow and read books, a library can have virtually any service a community wants or needs.

"Libraries used to be really filled with books, in my dad's day. When we programmed libraries, 65% of the square footage would be bookshelves." Cohen said. "There's been a reduction of that to add more user seating. Where we are today is that the user seating is really driving the activity."

But that doesn't mean less books.

"The library collection is being thought of as an activity within the library. So books are still very important to circulate and to have millions of them," he said.

The idea is to have books as collections that can be moved between libraries more easily, and have sizable collections stored off-site that can be available to any resident regardless of what library they use.

The saved space would go toward room for electronics, social spaces and quiet workplaces for individuals, while maintaining the room library staff has to work.

The concept of the "third place," used in community design as an area for social connections to be built, separate from the first and second places of home and work, is the driving force behind the design choices.

"The libraries were not designed for that. What happens is an adult tries to have a conversation or a youth tries to have a conversation and people go 'shhh ... get quiet,'" Cohen said.

Cohen's solution is to give various spaces where different levels of acoustics are allowed. Reflective areas for solitary study and fun children areas designed to encourage play would be the two most contrasting examples.

A final report from the study and community feedback will be compiled in February, but any of these changes are far off, with the first actual renovation of a branch library not being considered until the 2025 Fiscal Year.

At least one of the libraries reenvisioned in the study is already slated to be closed down and moved to a new location, courtesy of the Duval County School Board.

But, despite the practical outcomes of the study if any, the philosophy behind any future changes is being decided now for potentially decades to come.

"What is the most important thing to this community?" Rogers said. "What do we need to make sure it gets into the library?"