June 2, 2016

Omaha’s newest library has abandoned the book, prefers laser cutters and 3D printing


Where are all the books?

What are libraries for? Apparently, they’re tool storage facilities where people can also be at work. At least, that seems to be the understanding of Rebecca Stavick, executive director of Omaha, Nebraska’s Do Space, a new “community technology library.” The privately-funded facility is housed in a drab concrete block that used to be a Borders (ouch!) and provides free community access to mega-fast internet, computers, 3D printers, and a whole bunch of otherwise very expensive design software, like AutoCAD, Sketchup, and Sigil.

What doesn’t it have? Books. Yep, there is nary a book in the whole place, because books are dusty and smell like the past and they can’t 3D print drones — forget ’em! Do Space is all about the miraculously productive and infinitely creative Elysian fields of the future. From their website:

Do Space is a one-of-a-kind concept: it’s a community technology library, a digital workshop and an innovation playground filled with new opportunities to learn, grow, explore and create.

This sounds great! But it doesn’t sound very much like a library. Which brings us to Stavick’s somewhat idiosyncratic definition of “library,” offered in a recent appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered:

“I’ve always thought of libraries as places full of tools. Books are tools, scrolls are tools, computers are tools,” she says. “This vision of bringing technology to everyone in the community, it just gets people very excited.”

It’s not unfair to think of books as “tools” in the sense that the form of the book is a technology well-adapted to the needs of the archivist, the novelist, the researcher, and the reader. But it seems like a bit of a leap to go from “books are tools” to “anything with a tool in it is a library.”

While Do Space provides e-readers and and is hoping to partner with the actual Omaha library system to make their full range of e-books available, there seems to be very little overlap in presentation or function between a traditional library and this hybrid-maker-space. One patron on first seeing the facility mistook it for “a 3-D printer sales place,” and the NPR profile describes it as “loud,” noting that “the range of activity under way is a little disorienting — from enthusiastic little kids gaming in front of a giant flat screen to classes for the blind on using home computers.”

Another notable difference is that the traditional library makes no assumptions about what use you have in mind for the “tools” it contains. Ideally, equal consideration is given to space-age psychedelia, gardening, category theory, and Charlotte Brontë. Do Space is—by design—fundamentally less open, its aims decidedly more businesslike:

[Do Space’s] computing power also makes it a launchpad for entrepreneurs.

“We know people run businesses out of this building, and we’re OK with that,” Morris says.

Hans Bekale is among them.

“This is probably the biggest dream of any developer, anybody in this space, to have a place like this, right?” he says. “Because this is our modern-day office.”

Bekale manages his small multimedia business from Do Space. He says technology attracted him, as well as the informal community of creative people who hang out there.

This focus on making and creating and entrepreneuring resembles nothing so much as a community-supported WeWork; a place where a disrupted, precarious workforce can coalesce into an “informal community of creative people” — you know, just hanging out, trying to make a living on the internet. Indeed, this entrepreneurial class seems to be Stavick’s core audience, as she explained in an interview with Library Journal’s Lisa Peet:

The goal is to really empower the community with the guidance and education they need to learn and create using technology. We’re looking at developing interesting and unique programs to serve everyone, from total beginners who might be using a computer for the very first time all the way through more advanced folks who may want to come in and use AutoCAD to design something, or want to use a 3-D printer to prototype the next big thing.

This overbearing emphasis on production and creation seems light-years removed from the slow, contemplative, intellectual spirit of the traditional library. Which is not to say that Stavrick and Do Space aren’t providing their community a much-needed service. But should we be so eager to make the library an open office? Do we have to conflate economic productivity with intellectual accessibility? Should a single civic institution be responsible for both?

These are serious and difficult questions of governance and self-determination, which Stavrick seems uninterested in. After all, “community technology library” sounds cool and who would argue against something like that anyways?



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.