Will a Nebraska community tech center force us to consider libraries without books?

Nov. 30, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

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With a $7 million investment, an Omaha foundation hopes to make technology as readily available as books to the public in a unique new library.

The Do Space computer commons a few days before opening.

Ribbon Cutting ceremony on November 7, 2015. (Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

NET News “Libraries: The Next Chapter” Reporting Project

In November, the doors opened at Do Space in central Omaha. The self-described “community technology library” comes equipped with high-end computers loaded with professional software, gaming and electronic gizmos for kids, and regularly scheduled classes and workshops.

“Is Do Space the future of libraries?” asked executive director Rebecca Stavick. “When I define libraries, I refer to them as places of collaboration, so in that sense I would say ‘yes.’”

By making membership and access to most services free of charge, the major donors hope Do Space will also be an attractive place for those unable to afford computers, internet service, and expensive software to be part of the new generation of digital innovation.

At the facility’s ribbon cutting, Susan Morris of Heritage Services, which pulled together the funding from local donors, emphasized the project was “responding to an equity gap” in the availability of technology to thousands of area residents.

“The digital divide is pronounced in Omaha,” Stavick said. While low income and minority residents have increased access with smart phones and more affordable tablets, Stavick says this project is “about trying to get those digital skills to the next level. How do we take your technology and digital literacy and boost it?”

It is hoped the quality of the hardware, software and a variety of gee-whiz gizmos will attract the community and create an energy of its own.

“The real innovation is what people are going to do with the space,” Stavick said. “I believe that one of the biggest strengths of Do Space is going to be the culture here. It's going to be the community within the building.”

The genesis of Do Space arrived when a former director of the Omaha Library System began talking with representatives of Heritage Services, who had a special interest in addressing the issue of making technology accessible to everyone.

David Lempke of HDR, the building’s lead architect, said the original planning team felt that thinking about the project in terms of being a library was both helpful and limiting.

“The very basic question was ‘what's the future of the library?’” Lempke said. “Does the library have a future?”

The planning group agreed they could look beyond perceptions of libraries to put the tools used to create and share information into the hands of as many people as possible.

From there, as Lempke explained, the planners “realized that you know it's really not about the physical book. It is about knowledge. It is about accessing that information and how is that information disseminated. That's the turning point.”

That overall theory informed the design of the Do Space building at the intersection of 72nd and Dodge streets. Ironically, it previously housed a defunct Borders Bookstore, closed for declining sales of paper and ink books.

Stavick explained the interior of the building was redesigned, recognizing there could be a fast evolution in the services and programs offered in the future.

Rebecca Stavick, Executive Director of Do Space.

David Lempke, lead architect.

(Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

“It is stripped down,” Stavick said. “It's basic intentionally because then it provides an emphasis on the technology that is available.”

Step through the front door and a visitor is greeted by a floor-to-ceiling video wall. Those who stand in outlined footprints on the floor and follow instructions on the screen will see a swarm of dots take the shape of the visitor’s body and mimic every move. Occasionally a Segway-style robot may roll by with an iPad for a head, sharing live video of someone in a distant location.

“You come into this foyer and instantly you have this display in front of you that introduces you to technology and what's going on here,” Lempke explained. At the front lobby, “you also are standing in a space where you get glimpses of everything that's going on and then you want to explore."

Almost the entire west side of the building is taken up with rows of high tables and tall chairs parked in front of 56 new computers, both PCs and Macs. With the bright lighting and bold orange wall, it was striking that it resembled a normal, well-equipped computer space at a high school.

“This is not a normal computer lab,” Stavick was quick to clarify. “Typically when you think of a normal computer lab you walk into a room, every single computer's the same. That's not the case here.”

While a public library or high school might have standard issue web browsers and word processers, the Do Space computers are stocked with software often too expensive for a home or small business to afford.

There is computer-assisted design software used by architects and engineers, professional video and photo editing program, and specially designed accessibility features for visitors with disabilities.

Training for Do Space members will be a routine part of the program.

Stavick sees the facility as a potential boon for economic development “because real innovation is what people are going to do with the space and it's about getting the tools that they need into their hands.”

To the left of the entryway is a room behind glass walls that could pass for a high-end medical testing lab. Inside are humming commercial-grade 3-D printers. “That is our uPrint SE Plus going to work,” Stavick said, with a smile usually reserved for proud parents.

Patrons, for only the cost of materials, can send their computer-modeled designs to the printer. Before opening day, Do Space staff cranked out some test models, printing out everything from plastic bow ties to a functioning bionic hand.

“Let's say you're an entrepreneur or in town and you've got an idea for the next big thing, and you want to create a prototype for it,” Stavick imagines. “This is a place to go to get that done.”

For younger users the 3-D printers will be the center of workshops and educational programs encouraging troubleshooting, problem solving and design.

One program, known as City-X, will be central at workshops for teenagers wanting to explore using design to solve reality-based problems.

“There's a problem in this city and kids work through it. They create a solution,” Stavick explained. “They design it in Play Doh, then they design it on the computer and they print it out, so they're actually inventing things.”

Do Space created separate rooms for teenagers and young children. Both are brightly colored spaces behind tall glass walls, dominated by huge flat screens. Scattered on the floor are neon green bean bag chairs and low tables.

Visitor creates a live animation of herself on the Do Space video wall.

Samples of items created on the 3-D printer.

A visitor chats with the video robot during opening day at Do Space.

(Photos by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Kids will be encouraged to bring laptops for homework and group activities, but for teenagers the excitement will be the array of video gaming equipment that Do Space will focus on helping them learn (even if some parents remain a bit skeptical).

“We're looking at doing some educational video gaming competition and maybe some workshops in terms of how do you build your own video game,” Stavick said.

In the room set aside for young visitors, kids are encouraged to write on the (erasable) walls or help build a functioning robot.

Standing in the very quiet space three weeks before opening Stavick said this is her favorite room because “I just see it full of kids and parents and they're just crawling all around the floor playing with these different kind of robotic games.”

Asked about the potential noise level in the echoey room she laughed and said, “That’s why there’s a door.”

Research indicates there is significant demand for these types of resources being widely available in a community. Last year the Pew Research Center found 78 percent of those surveyed agreed libraries should offer programs to teach people how to use digital tools.

John Horrigan, the Pew researcher who authored the study, said the data “shows people are seeing changes in their community, driven by technology, and recognizing that the library has an opportunity to respond to those changes while it makes some changes of its own in normal operations.”

The report, “Libraries at the Crossroads,” also found three out of four people felt libraries should at least consider giving public access to high tech tools like 3-D printers.

While most public libraries, including the Omaha Public Library system, relies largely on local tax-support, the substantial funding for the construction and annual budget of Do Space comes primarily from foundation and individual donor money.

The project is independently managed but has a partnership with the Omaha system. Administrators with the Omaha city libraries concede the system could not have pulled off an expensive project with a long-term commitment, especially in light of its testy relationship with Omaha city hall.

The director of the Nebraska Library Commission, providing assistance to libraries statewide, says he “doesn’t see it as threatening” to traditional libraries and hopes for the opposite to occur.

“I think it’s very complimentary,” commission director Rod Wagner said. ”It will supplement the services that the Omaha Public Library and other libraries provide in that community.” While other libraries may not be able to afford to develop as extensive a program as Do Space, Wagner believes “it will spill over into other libraries that may develop those types of services on their own.”

It became a central part of the funder’s support of Do Space to assure that the services and hardware would be accessible to underserved parts of the community, like low-income families and the disabled. Lack of access for these groups is commonly referred to as “the digital divide.”

“The digital divide is pronounced in Omaha,” Stavick said

That equity gap shows clearly when mapping the “have-and-have-nots” in the city. An analysis by the University of Nebraska at Omaha found nearly every household west of 72nd Street lived in a household with a computer. Only three out of four had the same access east of that divide.

“A successful benchmark will be not only who uses (Do Space) but the ways in which it's used and also the demographic that uses it,” architect David Lempke said.


Nebraska Library Commission statistics on Nebraska libraries

Libraries at the Crossroads report from the Pew Research Center (Sept. 2015)

State of America's Libraries 2015 report from the American Library Association

Public Libraries in the United States Survey (Dec. 2014), from Institute of Museum and Library Services; includes state-to-state comparisons

The commitment to access resonated with Cameo Austin, a father of four young children, ages 8 to one-year-old, who “are more comfortable with technology” than he is.

On the day of the Do Space grand opening he was sitting in a tiny chair watching his kids get lost in the video gaming room.

“We learn together now,” Austin said. “They have more of a rapport with computers rather than a book. Tablets rather than pen and paper.”

He plans to use the tech library as often as he can “to just catch up with technology and be a step ahead of my kids.”

In its first month of operation, Do Space has hosted more than 10,000 visitors.