As Westport Public Library assistant director in charge of "innovation and user experience," Bill Derry looks at the library from a variety of perspectives. He examines how patrons currently use the facility -- from its physical space and technology to the questions they ask and the programs they like -- and tries to determine what they'll want and need in the future. It's an inexact science -- who could have predicted the growth of e-readers, or the concept that as people work alone on laptops they want an opportunity to be together with others? -- but he relishes the daily challenges, and unexpected surprises, of his job.

Last month, Derry spent two days at the World Innovation Forum in New York. Nearly a dozen of the planet's most visionary thinkers discussed the changing concept of innovation. No longer limited to one person or company, innovation is now seen as "open and disruptive, multi-disciplinary and global." Collaboration -- an essential element of innovation -- is reinforced by rapid digital, mobile and interactive networks of communication.

The World Innovation Forum drew nearly 1,000 attendees. Representing a broad array of businesses and organizations, they hoped to understand the best ways of harnessing the incredible power of innovation.

Derry was the only librarian there.

Led by Director Maxine Bleiweis, the Westport Public Library has a well-deserved reputation for innovation. Derry said, "She's very interested in how a library can add on to what it's doing -- not replace things -- in order to become more relevant in the world."

An example is last April's Maker Faire. Westport Board of Education member Mark Mathias proposed the idea. The library provided space, and helped implement it. The celebration of invention and creativity drew 2,200 people, of all ages. And it sparked a desire to do more.

A 10-year-old Westporter, for example, became inspired by the idea of 3-D printers. He walked into the library the other day, just as Derry was unpacking his newest acquisition: a 3-D printer. Derry was still learning how to use it -- and the boy was happy to show him how.

The 3-D printer is one of the key features of the Maker Space, a new hands-on section of the library where everyone is invited to tinker, invent and collaborate.

Derry sees it as more than an activity space, though. He'd like the 10-year-old boy who loves 3-D printing to become a library program leader, teaching others how to do what comes so naturally to him. (The 3-D printer, by the way, is very cool. It uses plastic to create actual models from 2-D plans.)

Guy Kawasaki -- an early Apple employee responsible for marketing the Macintosh in 1984, now a managing director of Garage Technology Ventures -- spoke at the World Innovation Forum about the need for companies to reinvent themselves. IBM, for example, went from a product-oriented, proprietary business to one that serves many others using a variety of solutions.

That, Derry says, is what the Westport Public Library tries to do. "We can't sit around wondering what the next curve is. We have to jump to it."

However, Derry cautions, change is not always easy. "One of the lessons I learned in New York was that people can become polarized. There's tension between what the library is, and what it could be. We think we'll be able to meet more people's needs better than in the past. But we can't throw out things like quiet reading rooms."

A 21st-century library -- like a 21st-century corporation -- can never lose touch with human beings. Just as businesses are acknowledging the importance of social networking to better understand their customers, Derry says that libraries must realize they are moving from "collection" to "connection." In other words, a library is a place not just to check out books, but to check out what's going on with other people.

Derry and Bleiweis are excited about providing spaces for language groups to flourish. Whereas people once used the library to check out books or audiotapes in different languages, they now meet there to converse in them. The groups -- Hebrew, Spanish, Hindi, you name it -- have grown organically. Each has its own style. The French speakers, Derry says, even bring in French food, and sing French songs.

Speaker Russell Stevens told the New York forum that new ideas can seem provocative. Derry agrees. "Replacing five stacks of books with the Maker Space is heretical. But with rapid change we're finding new ways to connect people, and meet their needs -- even needs we and they don't know exist."

All this, Derry notes, means that the library will push itself to look at itself and the broad user community differently. He says, "We know there are audiences out there we have not yet reached."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com.