'The Reluctant Dragon' from Children's Theatre of Charlotte and ImaginOn

Why are there dragons in the library of the future?

A quick review of research on the future of libraries reveals three consistent themes: new technologies to deliver and create content; community engagement through events, services and programming; and the catalytic impact of libraries on new ideas, art and literature.

Much of this research is recent. The Pew Research Center published a report on the state of American public libraries in March 2014, for example.

But what is remarkable about ImaginOn, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch library located downtown, is that it showcases all of these trends, and that it opened almost 10 years ago. If you’re a library lover or an information omnivore – and the new Pew study says 30 percent of Americans fall in these categories – there are at least two ‘libraries of the future’ to visit in North Carolina. One is ImaginOn, and the other is the new James B. Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. In addition to books, both contain studios, labs, classrooms, theaters, and experimental technologies.

ImaginOn was conceived in 1997 with the mission of bringing stories to life, and it integrates an innovative library space with the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

“A lot of people come just to see the space because of its architectural design,” says Seth Ervin, a library manager at ImaginOn. “They come to see the children’s theater, and then they check out books and do traditional library service. Some of ImaginOn’s capabilities show off a larger digital strategy. Studio I, for example, is a full multimedia studio with sound booth, blue screen, animation stations, film-editing software, and it’s available for use by the public, from teens to families to tell their stories.”

ImaginOn is conducting several digital experiments. A traditional storytime in the children’s section, Ervin says, might serve 50 people. “But what if we could broadcast our traditional storytime to every preschool in Mecklenburg County,” Ervin asks. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Last year, a storytime at ImaginOn encouraged parents and children to use Twitter to vote on the guilt or innocence of the wolf in “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.” (A forgiving crowd: their verdict was not guilty.) In spring 2014, the Children’s Theatre broadcast a live video stream from the construction of a gigantic puppet used in “The Reluctant Dragon.”

Innovation often results from collaboration with other community organizations. Kelly Czarnecki, teen services librarian, says ImaginOn is partnering with the Charlotte public radio station WFAE, the Carolina School of Broadcasting and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting on “Turn It Up Teen Radio,” a program that teaches broadcasting, interviewing and production skills to teenagers, who create their own show.

On a recent Thursday morning, a dozen teenagers from a Mecklenburg County charter school were producing video in Studio I about a banana and an unwanted marriage suitor. It was a conceptual piece – the banana, played by a male actor, was costumed in a red dress, and the suitor had a cowboy hat and a suitcase. Props are supplied by the Children’s Theatre. A few days before, in another part of the library, three dozen pre-teens learned about aeronautics from programmers and engineers volunteering from Hackerspace Charlotte.

“By participating in these field trip visits, teenagers can learn how to use a library more effectively,” Czarnecki says. “They can learn how to research, what a database is, and what databases to use. In the studio they can learn how to film a movie, what software to use, how to edit the story together, how to tell their story through the medium of video. And then, hopefully, they come back and work more in-depth on their own.”