The second and final meeting of the Aspen Institute workgroup on the future of libraries was held last week.
[What follows does not necessarily represent views of anyone else there or even the discussion that took place. These are purely my reflections when the meeting was over and continue what I started in a previous post. I also apologize in advance for the length of this post.]
The question that kept crossing my mind is simple: given the obvious trends in the library world and, more broadly, the world of knowledge, is some form of national network of library services inevitable?
When books were physical items primarily produced by established book publishers, the local library was the place local residents needed to go to get access to those books (assuming they couldn’t afford to buy everything they wanted to read).
There are still many printed books in local libraries around the country. We are, after all, in a transitional period and we can expect to see some printed books lasting long after almost everyone will be reading digitally – 2050?
But books are changing. It’s not just that there are digital versions of printed books. Self-published books and co-created texts already are more numerous than traditionally published books, even including e-books. With so much digital content, produced by so many different sources, the purely local collections in a local library can easily be outmatched in both quantity and quality.
The Digital Public Library of America is one important response to this accelerating condition. Indeed, DPLA is as much the future of libraries as anything on the horizon right now. DPLA doesn’t centralize all of the digital collections, but it makes them available to everyone. It uses local library resources (and regional consortia) to collect and organize digital content created locally, but it lets that content escape the constraints of the physical building in which they have been stored.
Another sign of the times is the use of virtual reference librarians. These were first established to share the load of patron requests especially at odd hours.
However, the potential of a network of reference librarians is much greater than that. Consider the deep knowledge that a reference librarian in one part of the country can have about some subject – say Hellenic pottery as an example. Why shouldn’t she or he get the reference questions that come up about that subject no matter where the patron is? Can the reference desk in the local library match this knowledge? Of course not. Is it possible that the reference librarian locally happens to be that expert in a subject? Of course. Why not let her specialize?
In a future world where most content will be digital, a national network of reference librarians would provide patrons with the best possible service and pointers to the best places to find the content they are searching for.
DPLA and specialized virtual reference librarians are just two significant ways that library services are no longer limited to the local library building.
So, if not as the collector of printed books or the location for an all knowing reference librarian sitting at a desk there, what will be the purpose of local library buildings in the decades ahead?
Already we see the library building being used as a meeting place. Even more exciting, many libraries are becoming centers for create content and culture in various ways – offering Maker Spaces (with 3D printers), poetry rooms, video/audio studios, etc.
Consider also that the national digital collection that is being pioneered by DPLA will need much more manpower to become useful than DPLA and its hubs can provide. The local library building can be one place where the staff can help with the task of tagging/classifying and otherwise making sense of all the new content produced by others.
The local library can also be the outreach center to get volunteers to help with this enormous task and thus be the local chapters of a national pool of librarians and colleagues.
As with any other sea change, the shift to a national library network will not come without strife. The most obvious trouble is that libraries have been inherently local institutions supported by local taxes. There is currently a very small amount of Federal money devoted to library services, mostly in the form of a fraction of the e-rate program.
As library services become not merely local, but an interstate concern, the Federal government or some other national organization is going to have to step up funding for the national institutions that will make those services work.
The Aspen Institute has also been involved in projects about citizenship so it worth remembering that our founding fathers strongly supported libraries as the cornerstone of an educated citizenry, which they thought, in turn, was essential for democratic government to survive.
Our national leaders today don’t explicitly share that understanding and seem to find it easier to deal with a less engaged citizenry. Perhaps the nationalization of libraries will make it easier for American citizens all over the country to gain the knowledge necessary to play their proper role in our democracy and thereby improve the way that our national government functions. Now there’s a long term goal!
© 2013 Norman Jacknis