Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Need for Public: The Future of Today's Local Libraries

Westport, Connecticut offers its residents many benefits, one of which is an excellent public library that has become an ever more central component of our community. As prime local retail storefronts have been overtaken by national and regional chains and the Web absorbs much of our attention for personal contact, our library serves as not just a repository for knowledge but increasingly as the primary pubic facility used by many citizens. A storm knocks out your power for a few days? Camp out at the library and use the wireless and PCs to keep in touch with the world. Need a place to socialize or hold a business meeting in a place that's not too commercial? Grab a coffee at the library cafe or use one of its meeting rooms - that is, if you're lucky enough to be able to book one.

The problems and opportunities that our public library faces were the focus of a recent public forum that I attended, a meeting that drew some thoughtful citizens to respond to the library staff's planning efforts. What came through loud and clear from this session is that in spite of the "the Web is killing libraries" meme that is popular in some circles these days, our library suffers not from lack of use but rather from overuse. Its books, reference desk, reading rooms, book clubs, online databases and Web site, lectures, equipment rentals and childrens' programs are the focus of so many people in our community that competition for access to them is creating some hard choices for the library's planners. How does a public library adjust its resources and programs to serve a public that is hungry for far more than just access to books on shelves?

The answer to this question is complicated by the changing nature of content. Now that our local news is being delivered not just by local newspapers but as well by local Web sites and blogs and other online resources, archiving local news and knowledge is not as simple as tucking away the latest catalog of microfiche or stack of papers. Ebooks are increasingly popular as checkout items, but an expanding array of technologies makes electronic acquisitions for ebooks more complicated. Many towns and cities participate in collective bargaining for books and periodicals, but acquisitions still tend to be done on a town by town basis. And even as our library prepares to upgrade its cataloging system, the question of what should be in that catalog becomes ever more pressing.

In short, what is a public library is supposed to be in an era in which storing a print-based catalog of items is becoming one niche service amongst many is rather complicated. Most importantly, the older patrons of our local library were not necessarily the ones most focused on print services. Many of them were, in fact, more concerned about whether their grandchildren would have the right range of electronic services available for them. They understood clearly that the world is now focused on electronic content and that our library needs to focus on getting them literate in this emerging world. This includes, increasingly, ensuring that people in our community are literate not just about content that's been created by others but also literate about how to create content. Yes, our high school has some courses in this for the teens, but what about a local businessperson who needs to understand how to build a Web site or to optimize their ads for Web search engines?

One of the more neglected possibilities, though, seems to be the opportunity for local libraries to begin to cut the cord between catalog services and patron services more aggressively. If 90-plus of library patrons are discovering content via major search engines, it would seem to make sense to get library content that's available locally into those search engine results more aggressively. Yes, you have a link to World Catalog in Google Books, but what if local libraries were to expose key content via localized AdWords results in mainstream Google search results? There would be no real competition for these placements and people would be immediately aware that a local library would be a reasonable choice to check out even before they clicked through to a retailer's site.

Most of all, though, public libraries are becoming curators of the very sense of that it means to be in the public realm in our local towns. Our downtown resembles more a drive-through mall festooned with nationally known stores than the funky collection of local stores that used to thrive there years ago; our local movie theatres pulled up stakes years ago to make way for restaurants and retail space. A Starbucks or a McDonalds is a far cry from a place that people can really call their own as a public space dedicated to a community. Our town hall, once a school building, has an auditorium that's used for public hearings, but many people are looking for smaller meeting spaces for a broader number of meetings at the same time. What's needed is a curation of knowledge transfer that goes not only far beyond collections of books and journals from far and wide but also beyond what's captured online. It is the community itself that needs to be curated.

I left the library feedback session with a great deal of hope for the future of local libraries in our country. Libraries are becoming increasingly essential components for the economic and social strength of local communities, empowered by electronic content to deliver traditional information services more efficiently while freeing up both facilities and staffs for more complex missions that make use of the unique knowledge assets that can be found and created in our local communities. We are still in the very early stages of this transformation of local libraries into being community curators, but I think that it will prove to be the cornerstone of a renewal of local economic and social vitality. If you know what your town has that's unique and valuable and you make it accessible to the world, and combine it with the best of what's available in the world as a whole, then you empower citizens to invest in their communities far more effectively.
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