Last month, the Aspen Institute gathered about two dozen leaders and innovators to a workshop on the future of public libraries. I was honored to be asked to participate. I will be helping to develop the larger strategy, but I thought I’d share some immediate observations from the discussions and my reflections on them.
As a pre-condition to thinking clearly about the future of libraries, we need to leave behind legacy thinking. The libraries of today cannot be and shouldn’t be the libraries that we fondly remember from our childhood. A library is no longer a building merely with books. Even the addition of e-books to printed books is not a fundamental and sufficient change in the traditional library model.
To escape that old mold, library services can now – and should now – escape the confines of the library building itself. With the Internet, library services can be everywhere.
At one point in the discussion, someone put up a picture like the one below – which isn’t quite what I have in mind by going beyond the library building 😉
The reaction of some people was a feeling that the “little free library” movement built cute little boxes but it is sad that library funding has been so diminished that we are left with such pitiful collections.
My reaction was a bit different. I said I agreed that this little box was limited, if what you had in it was printed books. But why not take all the outdoors and other locations which are targeted for “little free libraries” and make the real and much bigger digital library available to people there. As a portal to the digital library online, the collection can be as large as possible even in this little box.
I also pointed out that our economy has been changing and more people earn a living in digital ways, based on knowledge and innovation. In such an economy, you would think that libraries should be the key institution and hub of society. I gave examples of how some libraries are providing support to entrepreneurs. Another implication of this role for libraries is that the distinctions between public libraries and those labeled as specialized, school or university libraries will be weakening because often an entrepreneur or other innovator needs access to specialized technical knowledge as well as general audience information.
It was clear that the idea that Google and the Internet make librarians unnecessary was weighing on the minds in the room, as elsewhere in the library world. Maybe it’s because I’ve been an unusually long time user of the Internet, but I’m waiting for help from good librarians. What most of us face is TMI and TLK – too much information and too little knowledge.
Librarians can be the guide, curator, re-mixer, and knowledge creator for people who are drowning in a sea of information, or worse, swimming in the wrong part of the sea considering what they need to know.
Of course, it was clear from the discussion that many of us realize the users of libraries can also contribute, as in the pro-sumer model where a person is both consumer and producer of information. So librarians should encourage and make space for people to self-publish. Going beyond text, libraries should do the same for people making videos, music or even things (through the availability of maker rooms and the like).
Along those lines, there was a bit of discussion about the Douglas County (Colorado) Library model. That library got fed up with the refusal of four major publishers to sell e-books to them and the tough conditions imposed by the other two big publishers. So it reached out to many independent publishers to get their e-books in the library.
A much wider possibility in the future is for the libraries to help authors to publish their works without the traditional publishers. Yes, I know there could be a lot of junk published, but there is no reason why book reviews, peer reviews, and other means couldn’t be used to help identify the junk without the need for editorial approval from the big six publishing companies. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) has, as an example, established itself as a respectable medium for research using these techniques.
Finally, it seems that each library is trying to create the future itself. Why can’t librarians and others in the library world work together nationally, enabled by the tools of the Internet. If there is a librarian in Seattle who is an expert on Eritrea, why can’t she be available all over the US? Someone described this as the library version of MOOCs. This kind of federation, perhaps mutual aid pact, is a natural result when librarians realize their services are no longer limited to library buildings.
The Aspen Institute project is asking important questions not only for libraries, but for our country as a whole, so keep track of its efforts. For more information now, see www.aspeninstitute.org/dialogue-public-libraries
© 2013 Norman Jacknis