Think Piece • June 22, 2023

Not Your Father’s Library

Can you name a community asset with the tools to grow your business, boost your job skills, serve as a co-working space, reserve a movie, act as a tech-forward meeting space, host a camp, house art exhibits, showcase groundbreaking innovations, and still host the 10:00 am story time?

If you said your local library, you’d not only be right, but you likely live in a city that has re-imagined the role a library can play in their community. With a tech-forward focus, customer-centric attitude, wide variety of programs and services, and a fresh approach to branding, libraries are challenging outdated perceptions of dusty bookshelves.

Today’s libraries are having an economic impact on our cities as well. According to a 2021 study from the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, libraries in Florida supported 4,353 jobs outside of their own staff and contributed $346.7 million to the state’s gross domestic product.

Here are two groundbreaking examples of libraries that have become neighborhood hubs and pillars of community vitality.

The Homestead Cybrarium, Homestead, Florida

In 2021, the city of Homestead, Florida opened the world’s first “Cybrarium”, a one-of-a-kind, ultra-modern public library. The Cybrarium is a 23,000-square-foot, multi-floor high-tech library that marries traditional library services with advanced technology, immersive attractions, and innovative programming. It features a children’s theater, a virtual reality (VR) cube, a makerspace with a 3D printer, a Steampunk Lounge with an 1896 Chandler and Price letterpress and Book Mountain, and an interactive sculpture that rises from the first floor to a ceiling-high solar system. Inviting interiors and themed spaces launch endless imagination, offering a portal to the past or an invitation to the future.

“The VR Cube is our jewel attraction for a lot of people. You’re not going to find a VR cube in any other library and that’s what really makes us special,” said Rino Landa, the Cybrarium’s Library Director. “This is a community that doesn’t really see this kind of investment very often, so having a unique space with services really tailored to the public, it’s a means of expanding the horizons of what’s possible.”

Part of the Downtown Homestead redevelopment project, the Cybrarium is the vision of the Homestead City Council, which voted to establish the Cybrarium as a municipal library in 2019. Prominently located in Downtown Homestead, a bustling destination for entertainment, dining, and retail, the Cybrarium presents a modern approach to education and enrichment. Offering a robust, multilingual collection of physical and digital materials, STEAM kits, launch pads, laptops, and hotspots, the Cybrarium brings excitement to exploration and learning to residents of all ages.

“The Cybrarium is one of the highest drivers of traffic in our downtown. People are coming to downtown just to visit the Cybrarium,” said Zackery Good, Assistant City Manager of Homestead. “And not only our residents, but people from outside the community are coming to see what it is about. We’re getting news coverage because people are curious about the world’s first Cybrarium.”

“The Cybrarium has been a tremendous community asset,” adds Homestead Mayor Steve Losner.

Park Central Library, Manassas Park, Virginia

As part of a large downtown redevelopment project, the Park Central Library opened in 2022 within Park Central Plaza, an open-air, public square, and is redefining what people expect from a library.

Tailored specifically to the needs of the Manassas Park community, the Park Central Library offers virtual reality, 3D printing, technology, programs, and services, in addition to a large collection of hard copy and digital books, and movies. Serving everyone from the City’s youngest residents to seniors and everyone in between, the goal was to get community members excited and engaged.

The library’s location and shared space for programs and meetings make it easy to collaborate on interesting services that might not typically be associated with libraries — such as a coffee shop, movies, concerts, and other fun community engagement activities.

A truly local resource, the new Park Central Library is an amazing asset for our community, offering education and enrichment options for every community member. Opening the library was a huge milestone in our downtown redevelopment project,” said City Manager, Laszlo Palko. “A cornerstone of the Park Central Plaza, the Park Central Library makes Manassas Park an even better place to live, work, and thrive.”

Palko explains what drove the decision beyond a vision for the future. “We were experiencing difficult financial times and faced tough budget decisions, but we felt it was important to prioritize our library and make sure it would get the attention and investment it deserved. While we work closely with the county and still outsource many programs to them, in our minds, the county model for the library was not serving the best interest of our community any longer,” notes Palko. “In the first year of running the new library, we reduced costs by 50 percent compared to what the county was charging us. The city was also able to secure state funding, bringing the savings closer to 70 percent.”

Changing How We See Libraries

What stands out about Cybrarium and Park Central Library is the role that Homestead and Manassas Park wanted libraries to play in their communities. Rather than seeing the library as the quiet mainstay of the city, they cast a vision for the next-generation of these assets. One in which their libraries can provide more than books, they provide a better quality of life for residents and a sense of place that sets them apart from other communities.