Last Thursday, I had the distinct pleasure of giving a presentation as part of the Northeast Kansas Library System’s annual Tech Day held at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. The conference was well-organized and engaging, and the audience was as generous with their attention as they were thoughtful with their questions.

Now I must admit, when I think about the cutting-edge institutions that are leading us into the future, Topeka, Kansas is not usually the first thing that comes to mind.

However, my experience at the Topeka library served as a wonderful reminder of how often our expectations can be delightfully wrong.

There’s a great deal of abstract and hypothetical discussion in the library world about how best to usher in a new generation of library services and facilities that will stay relevant to us as we become more dependent on the internet as our primary information resource in everyday life.

However, it’s much less common to see an institution that has so readily embraced so many of these new, and some would say “radical,” ideas about how libraries should evolve. In their oft-cited Library Journal article by Michael E. Casey and Laura C. Savastinuk, the authors describe the “Library 2.0” concept as, “a model for library service that encourages constant and purposeful change, inviting user participation in the creation of both the physical and the virtual services they want, supported by consistently evaluating services.” And while that definition might not sound all that radical, when you start talking about the implementation of tools that invite user participation (such as allowing patrons to write reviews of books or link their MySpace pages to a library profile), the familiar feeling of toes dangling over the edge of a diving board comes to mind.

Luckily, there are some institutions with the support and courage to take the plunge while others can wait and see what the splash looks like. The move towards inviting greater patron participation doesn’t simply happen through rolling out new technology, though. It’s a holistic process, and one that may ultimately involve increased efforts to make the library a more central feature in the community where people come to gather — in person, and online. I often say in my presentations that I think the libraries of the future will become even more valuable for the physical spaces and personal guidance they provide. For those who are looking for examples of how this might work, I highly recommend touring the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library for a firsthand look at how libraries are already making this vision a reality.

While books are still obviously the main attraction, TSCPL embraces a “more than books” attitude and atmosphere. There’s a café, an art gallery, a conference center, a bookstore, a genealogy center and so much more. There are lectures, performances, classes and tours, and just an overall feeling that there’s more happening at the library than anywhere else in town.

See also: TSCPL’s Paper Cuts Blog