Say the word “library,” and concepts like collaborative huddle space, interactive public art display, or virtual/augmented reality lab probably don’t immediately spring to mind. But if you haven’t been in a library since your school days, you’re missing out on an opportunity to play in your community’s technology sandbox.

Libraries today are filled with much more than materials, books and art collections. They are places where you can go use a small huddle room with a flat panel that you can connect your tablet to wirelessly and have a web-conference with colleagues in your London office. Your high schooler can reserve a study room online and share information about that school project due tomorrow with a peer on the other side of town. There are technology-enabled spaces where you can recharge your phone while you recharge your soul in conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee (while also keeping an eye on your school-age child busy creating his or her own computer game). There is technology in the library everywhere!

Technologies that enable collaborative environments, self check-out and return of materials, and maker labs where patron can create and produce digital content have become standard in today’s library. With increasing frequency, libraries also use interactive digital wayfinding and material location, allowing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) wireless presentation capabilities within meeting, huddle, and multi-purpose spaces, and streaming and on-demand content access via their website.

Emerging Technologies Drive the Planning Process

Fueled by the American Library Association initiative called “Libraries Transform” and increasingly tech-savvy patrons, technologies in libraries have become the backbone of a vibrant and functioning facility. Visualization, Big Data, AR/VR/MR, artificial intelligence, cloud-based services, AV-over-IP, Li-Fi (and Wi-Fi of course!), gamification, Digital Maker Spaces, “Lite Broadcast” and other emerging technologies are all driving how technology is planned for within the library – a major consideration for renovation and construction projects.

Today, technology needs to be planned at the onset, versus later in the development process. In the past, many libraries handled the planning, purchase, and integration of technology on their own as a stand-alone internal project, or they engaged a professional technology consultant midway through a construction project after the building had been planned, or even just hired the local technology contractor to come in and replace existing equipment with current models after the project was complete. These approaches were sufficient in the old days where technology had a small and defined role — but that approach is full of pitfalls in today’s environment.

Hunt Library – North Carolina State University

The library of today relies on merged function of space, and this will be even more true with the library of the future. A maker space can also serve as a medium sized meeting room. A computer classroom doubles as public access stations when classes aren’t scheduled. Seating in the children’s area also serves a remote office hub for parents and caretakers on flex-time.

The old approach to planning technology as it relates the library described above may result in a closed, “stovepipe” system incapable of being flexible and adaptive. It may not be interconnected with other technology in the building, or could lead to adopting unsustainable technology standards, making the library feel old and out of step with today’s patron expectations.

Tutt Library – Colorado College

The Three Ps

Integrating technology correctly into a project begins early and, regardless of who is responsible for the planning, to be successful it should follow these Three Ps: Planning, Process, and People.

The first “P”, Planning, should address spaces, budget, acquisition models, and time frame. Process, the second “P”, is how the plan is executed and includes gathering information, creating the design or upgrade equipment list, and implementing the design or purchase of equipment. Finally, the third “P”, People, is the “who,” and includes who gathers information, who develops the design or equipment list, and who implements and supports the design or equipment. In the case of a master technology plan, it will also identify who maintains the plan. While the focus of this article will be Planning, parts of Planning touch upon and drive Process and People.

Planning is the cornerstone of a library technology project. A solid plan can be used for a space specific project, a full building project, or a multi-location project and should address not only the immediate technology needs but also should look at the next one to three years. If the plan needs to address beyond three years, it should be considered a master plan, because of the rapid changes in technology.

Where to Begin?

A plan should start with a look at where technology is needed and desired and where technology is not needed or desired. This starts with a consideration of the spaces within the project and the use of those spaces.

The plan should address each room or area using three categories:
• Current or planned spaces where technology is used or will be needed
• Current or planned spaces where technology is not used but trends indicate technology is required
• Current or planned spaces that will technology free.

In spaces where technology is currently used, the success of the installed technology should be examined closely. This process should include reviewing from both a function and material standpoint — elements that are working well and those that are not. Elements that are working well should be repeated from a functional standpoint, but equipment may need to be updated to current standards. Those that are not successful from a functional standpoint should be abandoned, and if the failure is material based, then equipment deficiencies may need to be addressed.

For example, until recently large format flat panel monitors of 65” or greater were expensive. Apart from small meeting rooms, projectors and projection screens were the standard method for displaying digital content. Today, costs of monitors up to 90” have declined dramatically, and medium and even some large spaces can use flat panels as the primary method of display under correct design circumstances. The functional use of the medium and large spaces with a projector and screen was successful, but the material element could be improved upon using current technology standards.

In considering spaces where technology may not currently used but the inclusion of technology is trend driven, one could look at the maker space that is evolving to include media creation and graphic art workstations. The amount of technology needed for these types of maker spaces can mean as little as seamless and fast Wi-Fi and 3D printers, or full-blown production studios complete with state of the art recording and video equipment where someone can create a professional level project.

Slover Library – Norfolk VA

Kids in Mind

The library’s children’s area is a good case study for this type of technology space planning. The traditional children’s area consisted of books organized by age group, a large open “play” area that could double as a small gathering place for story time, and maybe a physical structure that encouraged a child and parent or caretaker to curl up quietly with a book.

Today’s children’s area still includes these features but also includes a bank of public computers that are segregated by age group with limited and controlled internet access. There are gaming stations and areas that focus on interactivity and shared play either via a touch screen or motion sense enabled hardware and software. Within the children’s space are adult areas where a parent or caretaker can sit with each other to collaborate and socialize. Even story time has been transformed with the use of a video camera or document camera that displays a books illustrations and text or use of an e-book application on a tablet connected to a flat panel or projector wirelessly. Many libraries stream and archive story time, so it can be viewed on the library’s website.

Finally, good technology space planning should identify rooms/areas within the library where user technology will be absent or minimal. We are surrounded by technology 24/7/365 and sometimes we all just like to unplug to quietly read or enjoy a tactile analog activity such as knitting or just have a conversation that doesn’t involve social media or texting. While void of visible user technology, these spaces may still require limited technology like a room scheduling panel for a shared maker space, building wide paging for announcements, and Wi-Fi.

Free Library of Philadelphia – Philadelphia PA

On the Money

Once library spaces and desired technologies are identified, a project budget needs to be established. While the costs of some technologies like flat panels, computers, and network electronics are decreasing, spaces that rely on emerging technology or specialty equipment will come with a price and depending on the complexity of the equipment or the features desired, this can be a premium price. An accurate budget based on the total system implementation and not limited to equipment costs is essential.

A project budget should include equipment costs, installation and labor costs, and a minimum contingency; especially if the project is to be phased or is long term like a library system wide renovation project or new building construction project. This budget should also look at avenues of technology funding like library operating budget allotment, capital funding, public millage requests, government grants or E-Rate. In the case of E-Rate, even more careful planning is required owing the limits of type of equipment and services that E-Rate can be applied to and the schedule to apply for this program and receive fund distribution.

The End is Just the Beginning

A comprehensive library technology plan should also map out how the technology equipment, software, installation and other items such as extended service plans and expert on-call technical support will be obtained. The two primary avenues to obtain technology are Design-Bid-Build and Design-Build. The Design-Bid-Build process results in a specification for a true competitive bidding phase and is the most common method for public libraries where community funds or state and local laws require bids be obtained. The Design-Build approach is often used for smaller projects that are under a certain dollar figure or in the private sector. The process for obtaining the technology should be considered and made part of the plan.

Finally, a successful library technology plan will include a time frame for obtaining the technology and associated services. It should also provide a time frame for examining the success of the technology project, and consideration of changes that may be necessary to accommodate either phasing of implementation because of budgetary limitations or shifts in emerging technologies. In a master plan, this time frame element should also consider when a refresh of technology should happen and how trends considered immature at time the plan was developed are addressed if they mature into required technology.


Planning the tech for a library is critical to overall success, both short-term and long-term. The process can be complicated, challenging and time consuming: researching trends, separating the trends that are here to stay versus the passing technology fad, sifting through the myriad of available products and upgrades, determining compatibility between equipment and manufacturers, creating comprehensive designs or requests for proposals, overseeing the integration of the technology and more.

And for the library technology staff, balancing this process with their true job of technical support of library staff and patrons, the burden is overwhelming! Some library systems and institutions have the resources to do this in-house, but many seek outside assistance. Either way, your project will benefit from considering Planning, Process and People.

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Mary Cook is a Project Consultant for The Sextant Group, where she has been involved with technology planning and technology master plan development, including for the Richland Library system in Columbia SC. Richland recently was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries as the result of the success of its multi-branch renovation. Mary is based in Ann Arbor MI.

Top image: Tutt Library, Colorado College