The Public Library as an (Almost) Open-Source Institution

Divesification Is Good, Collaboration Is Better

By Your Powers Combined

Putting these two ideas together would create something really cool. How awesome would it be if every Little Free Library in existence had someone add some photovoltaic cells, or a hand-cranked battery, or some other renewable, rechargeable power source that would power a LibraryBox so that in addition to the physical collection present, there were many more digital books available? Or program installation files and source code for open source projects? Or digital art from the community? All of those things would be possible with the LibraryBox attached. The result would be content distribution in even the most remote of places, for relatively inexpensive construction and operation costs, depending on your materials, using open-source ideas, plans, and possible community materials, to achieve that end.

Many public libraries have to be selective about their choices for the building shelves, because there's far more content produced, even by major publishing houses, than any public library could afford to purchase or has space to house. Public libraries rely on reviews from publications and award committee selections to winnow the field of possible purchases down to a manageable selection, where professionals at institutions apply their policies and expertise to choose what gets bought. Here's a secret: public libraries do like it when you tell them what you want them to buy – it gives weight to items in the sea, like positive professional reviews and awards do. The more you tell your public libraries what you'd like to see on the shelves, the more likely you're going to see what you like on the shelves. As a member of the public, anyway.

As an author, or content creator, it's a little harder to get yourself into the collection of the public library. Because of limited budget, the easiest way for a published author to get their books on the shelves is to have favorable reviews in major publications or win an award. If you don't have nice reviews or award stickers, convincing a lot of people around you that the public library wants your book is the next best thing. If you're fortunate, your public library may have a "local authors" or "local interest" shelf with slightly more relaxed rules about getting onto the shelf.

An accompanying PirateBox to a Little Free Library would allow the community to make suggestions about what they want to see on the LibraryBox, or to distribute resources of their own that can't or don't want the approval stamp of an institution like the public library. A public library could then curate the materials uploaded, select the things they want for wider distribution, and then put them back on the LibraryBox.

Little Free Libraries and LibraryBoxen are local solutions, primarly, meant for people who can physically journey to the locations to partake in what's available. If you want to distribute digital content on a wide basis, well, you're likely up the creek if you want your public library to help you out in getting to a wider audience – a lot of public libraries haven't given real thought about digital distribution methods that they can leverage to not only give a platform to their local audiences, but to archive and disseminate digital documents, free culture, and useful things, whether in the building or on the road, and to be able to access them from elsewhere.

How nice would it be to have space on a public library server for open source projects, both finished an in-progress? Where you could keep digital copies of documents, in addition to their print counterparts, should they exist, of organization meetings, government documents, and the rest? What if it could be combined with a search appliance to make the publically available document collections or projects indexed and searchable? Aspiring authors, would you be willing to let your library be the distribution hub where anyone can get your first novel, short chapters, preview work, or other important parts of your marketing plan, for free? Fan-creators, wouldn't it be neat if you could keep an accessible archive of your work at the library, in case of computer crashes or your preferred hosting service going under? Makers, would it be nice to have freely-available 3D printing designs, easily downloadable and manufacturable at the library? Local bands, why not sell your public library your album digitally, with the rights for the library to be able to check out the album to others, press CD copies of it, or just upload it to a space in the library's digital realm and let people expose themselves to it? What if your public library could help you with designing artwork or put you in contact with someone who would help design for you?

As an aspiring open-source institution, the public library is still going to do a lot of things with closed and proprietary methods because popular works and titles in demand are still locked into those methods, and the gatekeepers for those methods have marked interest in making sure the library gets good and properly gouged for the ability to loan out those books instead of forcing people to purchase them. Much like many people will use closed-source software because applications they need to use for their work or leisure only run on those closed-source platforms. But there's an entire ecosystem outside of those proprietary walls that has great stuff that should be in a public library collection. With items like the LibraryBox, public libraries can start building infrastructure to tap into that ecosystem. After building that infrastructure, though, the public library needs tools and community feedback to help find the really good stuff and promote it. Community feedback mechanisms and curation allow passionate people to help shape the amorphous blob of things into useful categorizations and bring the cream to the top. Public libraries already have the tools they need to begin this work. They don't know it completely, or they may encounter resistance from their organization, or they may not yet have processes and procedures in place to be able to sort the content that will flood in, but you can help them in all of those ways. Little Free Libraries and LibraryBoxen are two ways of addressing the need for the community to be able to distribute content. There may be better ones in this audience – make them! And share them with your public library and your community, so everyone can reduce their dependency on proprietary methods and materials.