"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Oct 23, 2009

What we own / what we make

Last Friday we had a group of people from a local library in to speak to our class. One of them* made a very interesting comment that I've been mulling over ever since, especially after Tim Spalding, the founder of LibraryThing, posted this thought on Twitter. This librarian said (and this is obviously rather paraphrased) that he doesn't see the future of libraries in what we collect, but in what we produce.

He was advocating a move toward libraries as producers of information and tools, and I'm not quite sure I can follow him that far, but both he and Spalding have a point. Libraries have been essentially known as their collections for centuries. People think that you go to a library for books or materials -- to get your hands on the information that the library has accumulated in one place. But in a world where information and entertainment is becoming electronic, this model of library-as-collection no longer seems viable. As Spalding says, when e-books become ubiquitous, why not just replace libraries with a citizen-wide e-book subsidy?

I feel strongly -- as do, I'm sure, many of my colleagues -- that libraries do have a place in this emerging new world. But discovering and articulating that new role is extremely difficult.

I came into this profession with a strong interest in public service, so it probably makes sense that I see the solution lying in that direction. To me, the value of the library is the added value we provide on top of our collections. We don't just provide information; more importantly, we help people effectively find the information they need. We provide guidance when people don't know what step to take next to solve their problems. We provide spaces for people to interact with each other, to learn things and participate in activities that hopefully enrich their lives. We provide quiet places where people can settle in and get some work done or just read a book. We offer access to technological and other resources that people can't necessarily afford at home. We offer reader's advisory to help people discover new things to read (or watch, or listen to, ...) (this seems to be dying in a lot of places -- I think that the trend should be going in the opposite direction); we keep records of our communities' history; we are sometimes safe spaces for children whose home lives are not pleasant or for people who just have nowhere else to go. I believe that a well-run public library enriches its community and changes lives.

The problem is that we don't articulate that very well. I think a segment of the profession doesn't even really think of things this way. (How can we market ourselves in this way to our constituencies when we don't believe it ourselves?) Libraries have to move away from the focus on the collection and toward an understanding of what they have to offer their communities as a service or group of services -- and then make that understanding known and felt to the community.

As I said, I have a hard time going as far as viewing libraries as content producers. That's getting us into the publishing business, as far as I can tell, and I don't know that I feel that's an appropriate place for us to really go. Perhaps as content collocators, yes. That's an extension of what we already do (not just in the sense of creating collections -- we write bibliographies, etc.). Take us farther away from that, though, and I wonder if we're moving too far into another realm.

* (I'm not identifying this person or the library more precisely because I'm not sure about the etiquette of quoting/mentioning someone's comment made during an informal class discussion in a public forum without their explicit permission.)

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