By early 2014 nine municipal and public libraries are expected to join the Media Labs network of libraries offering state-of-the-art facilities, specially trained staff and multimedia labs, allowing visitors – mostly teenagers, young professionals, the unemployed and immigrants in Greece – the opportunity to record music, edit videos, surf the Net, share ideas or just chill out.
This network is the most recent addition to a list of innovations introduced by the Future Library initiative, which was launched in 2011 and today numbers 120 members. The initiative is exclusively supported by the Stavros S. Niarchos Foundation (SNF) and its aim is to connect the country’s public libraries to the revamped National Library once it moves to its new home at the SNF’s Cultural Park at Faliro Bay on the southern coast of Athens.
Future Library is a creative response to the crisis, which has seen thousands of bookworms return to public libraries as financial constraints take their toll on book purchases, but also because they want a place to spend their time surrounded by like-minded souls, reading and chatting – and at no cost.
The Municipal Library of Drama in northern Greece, for example, has seen the number of books being taken out on loan rise from 21,000 in 2011 to 22,400 when it joined the network in 2012, while the number for 2013 already stands at 14,000.
Future Library’s initiatives have mainly concerned educational programs and campaigns promoting reading among school-age children and their parents, as well as enriching the collections of public libraries.
“The institution of the library has been brought back to life,” said the librarian at Drama, Dimitris Loulopoulos, who, like his colleagues at other public libraries, is anxiously awaiting the opening of the Media Lab, which will be located on the first floor of the library’s premises.
“I believe it will be an amazing space and I really hope that visitors will take full advantage of it,” he added.
His enthusiasm is shared by Lora Papaioannou at the public library in the Athenian suburb of Ilioupoli, where the staff has had to go the extra mile to meet rising demand. Future Library’s educational seminars, according to Papaioannou, “have helped broaden our minds and made us see new things like, for example, that a book can act as a springboard for many interesting activities.”
After participating in two reading campaigns, the central library of the Keratsini-Drapetsona Municipality in Amfiali, on the outskirts of Piraeus, has proved to be a haven for many of the impoverished area’s children whose families could not afford the luxury of holidays this summer.
“We can see that there is a need, that children want to come to the library,” said the facility’s director, Maria Korkidi, adding that the Media Lab will also help “change the public’s perception about the role and use of libraries in general.”
The main purpose of the Media Labs initiative is to attract the so-called Generation Y to libraries, 15-35-year-olds who are not acquainted with the concept of book borrowing.
Papaioannou says that none of the high schools in her area, Ilioupoli, have organized field trips to the local library to get the kids acquainted with it, while also noting that the need of such a structured environment is even greater after pupils graduate from school and begin looking for work.
The Municipal Library of Kozani, which is mostly used by researchers, also has great expectations of the Media Lab that it will acquire.
“Our audience is mostly aged up to 35, but we believe that we need to boost it,” said director Ioanna Stergiopoulou. “We hope that [the Media Lab] will help change the mind-set at our library, make it a little less severe and cerebral.”
One of the main criteria that led Future Library to set up the Media Labs where planned was the interest shown by the staff at these facilities in embracing the project, as well as participating in other campaigns run by the group.
“Some libraries are trying to make a difference, and these are the ones we want to invest in, as well as the ones that can inspire others to do likewise,” said Dimitris Protopsaltou, one of the founders of Future Library and the initiative’s program manager.
Instead of a grand opening, the network will present the potential of the Media Labs through a “Creativity Marathon” to start in December, while the website 2013.futurelibrary.gr/medialab is already inviting the public to share ideas as to how the labs can be used more creatively.
The nine Media Labs that compose the initial network are expected to be completed by October, when they will go into trial operation, allowing staff time to get acquainted with the new services and to complete their training. And just as the Media Labs themselves are not conventional library areas, so the training process of the libraries is also out of the ordinary. For example, in the first three-day seminar, they were asked to dress and pose as teenagers and get into discussions with young people on the streets of their cities, recording the experience on video.
“It was an exercise in people skills,” explained Protopsaltou, adding that despite some initial reservations, the librarians then threw themselves into the training with vigor.
Protopsaltou also stressed that the initiative needed the support of the local community and that Future Library helped bring fans of the program to the aid of the librarians by opening the program up to suggestions from what he calls “creative people.”
“Creative people are skeptical of public libraries and public spaces more generally,” Future Library’s program manager said. “We have become accustomed to the idea of public space as a forum for protest rather than a forum for creativity.”
This link between the libraries and the local community will also help the facility better assess the particular needs of each area and to adapt the program likewise, which is really the only way to ensure that the Media Labs become a success and survive independently, without the support of Future Library.
“We will provide the ideas and support so that the libraries can use the Media Labs to their full potential,” said Protopsaltou, expressing his conviction that the public knows how to discern between something that’s good and something that’s not.