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

Encouraging Change From Without

Expect More

Open-sourcing public libraries means open-sourcing the buildings, the website spaces, the collections, and the governing philosophies and procedures. They should be community-driven entities and provide clear "source code" and documentation of what they do and how they do it, for the community to then take, study, fix flaws and bugs, remix, and then submit back to the library for inclusion in the next iteration. To do that, though, we need a community that takes an active interest in their public library, and is willing to work on all of those issues from the outside perspective, to work with the staff on the inside that are trying to make their libraries better than they are now.

What would a public library be like if everyone that came in and used it had a suggestion on how it could be improved? And even more, what if everyone who came in to the library not only had a suggestion, but was comfortable making that suggestion to the library staff? And even better, what if the library could take those suggestions and adapt themselves to be able to better serve the people who use library services?

David Lankes argues in Expect More that public library users need to insist that their libraries be proactive about meeting the challenges of tomorrow, on issues like user privacy, intellectual property, and other things that are important to the community. The more you push, poke, and prod your library to think less about being merely a content delivery source (where they will die the death of a thousand paper cuts to all the other content delivery systems that are faster, stronger, and better able to serve the needs of a consuming public) and more about a content creation source, contributing unique and highly relevant things to the community and region around them (and perhaps even the nation and the world), in partnership with that same community that the information and creations are intended for, the more likely it is that not only will your public library become more relevant to you and your interests, it will be better-positioned to absorb the changes of the future and continue to deliver excellent quality to the community around it.

Why doesn't your public library have a LibraryBox installation? A Disapora* pod? A process by which they purchase the digital content they lend out to you, instead of merely renting it from a provider who can (and does) arbitrarily jack up the prices every time they need a new cash infusion? Part of it may be they don't know such things exist. Part of it may be they don't think they have the expertise to set it up and maintain it. And part of it may be that they believe the community doesn't want it. You can help change their minds on those issues by expecting the public library to have those things, and to make the investment in time and staff to provide them.

Public libraries have the potential to be about more than just materials and cataloging techniques and technology that allows people to find the materials that have been purchased, and more than just places where someone goes to get free Internet access. They could even become places that actively provide methods (and education about said methods) to make it difficult for snooping entities to capture their data. What would happen if public libraries lived up to the promise of "Your Local Library Can Help You Resist The Surveillance State" by adopting the best software installations and practices from our communities? At least part of the issue in the way is inertia. It's not cheap to retrofit all the computers with new operating systems, software suites, and to do the training that would be necessary, for staff and the public, to really embrace the idea of the library as a secure and private computing zone. Even if the long-term savings are astronomical, the momentum needed to make changes can be substantial. If the community around us, though, starts pushing hard for this to happen, then the public library will change. If the community around us can provide us with solutions to the problems that will develop from adopting this firm commitment to privacy, the library will change faster.

A public library has a commitment to access to everyone. That should mean everyone – those of differing physical and mental abilities, socioeconomic classes, language proficiencies, ages, races, and creeds. That should be so in our physical buildings, in our virtual spaces, in our outreach efforts, and in everything we do. A public library will build the minimum required for access according to the codes and laws in place in their community, and then perhaps with some thought about other things afterward, if they have someone handy who can help them with the relevant issues. (Not always, though – those in charge of building where I currently work solicited, and then gave the appearance of ignoring, the suggestions of the staff that would be working there about how to construct the building. Not a good idea.) If there's something about your library space that is inconvenient or that presents a possible barrier to access, tell us and expect us to fix it. If there's something about the library website, or any of our partner resources, that is inconvenient or presents a barrier to access, tell us and expect us to either fix it or put pressure on the people we're buying from to fix it. Be civically active and get your local government and library board to go beyond federal requirements for accessibility. Harangue us about adopting design principles that work for everyone. Then follow up with us. And bring friends who are similarly inconvenienced. Bring pressure on social media, at board meetings' public comment periods, in the news. Keep pushing on us until we change, or until we give a real reason to why we can't. (Even then, keep pushing.)