JANESVILLE—Books are excellent at killing wireless signals, says Hedberg Public Library Director Bryan McCormick.
Nothing makes dead spots sprout like a huge collection of books-not even concrete.
That fact might provide the perfect segue into an article about the tension between the traditional role of libraries-providing many pieces of paper with printed text bound together-and the ever-widening digital world. It might make a reader wonder if libraries are all that necessary anymore.
But you're not going to find that story at Hedberg-or at a lot of other libraries, for that matter.
Let's say our society does go paperless at some point, and it's blue screens everywhere. McCormick, who has been Hedberg's director since 2007, said the library is in a position to remain relevant in such a time.
"Oh yeah, I don't have any problem there," he said after being asked about the hypothetical. "We'll continue to adjust. Whatever the community needs."
The library is already stocked with computers, a hangout spot for teens, fancy technology such as a 3-D printer, space for public events and even a cafe. It already resembles the entity that many other libraries are morphing into: community center.
Hedberg Public Library recently embarked on another attempt to invest in the community center aspect. In December, the library's board of directors voted to raise up to $3.5 million for a remodeling project to enhance the library's public events programs, technology and more.
"A 21st-century library is you're more flexible; you're not so heavy on the academic focus," McCormick said.
It's been more than 20 years since the building received any significant upgrades. So a year and a half ago, McCormick and his staff went on recon missions to other libraries in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan to steal ideas about what a remodeling project would look like.
Technology upgrades, more meeting spaces and greater space flexibility became the priorities.
Without expanding the building's footprint, the project would create more space for public events, expand the teen center, improve wireless Internet capabilities and allow access into the program room-the library's main public events space-directly from the main entrance. That would allow staff to seal off other parts of the building when programs run past normal operating hours.
The results of those recon missions probably weren't all that surprising. Staff members say the library's program room is notoriously difficult to reserve. The demand is so high that when a blood drive inquired about holding an event in January, the room had no availability until March.
When asked about the teen center expansion, Laurie Bartz, the young adult librarian, cited a study from the Young Adult Library Services Association that says libraries could play an instrumental role in introducing teenagers-especially disadvantaged ones-to technology and careers in technical fields.
Down the road, McCormick hopes to establish a club for teens centered around the 3-D printer that was given to the library last year. He also envisions creating a robotics club through a partnership with Blackhawk Technical College.
Plumer Lovelance, executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association, said most library capital campaigns he hears about sound a lot like Hedberg's.
"Programming has been for some time an area where there's a lot of growth," he said.
McCormick first noticed libraries' transition from hushed, stuffy places to modern community centers as a student at Cornell College in Iowa. The library there welcomed lectures from professors and scientists during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
McCormick took that idea and incorporated it into the several libraries he's worked at since the late 1990s. That sort of thing has only gained in popularity with rise of the Internet age.
He's got doubts about a paperless society. But the future he sees for Hedberg, whether there are books on the shelves or not, is one where people have many reasons to visit the building-for an author reading, blood drive, office hours with a police officer or learning about engineering.
"There's so many different reasons people come to the library," he said. "It's not the old buy a book, store the book, retrieve the book. We're still going to be a place for the community to get together and do things."