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

Encouraging Change From Without

Public Input

We need libraries to be built (and retrofitted) so that they can be modified on the fly. We need suggestions from the community that say "Hey! I want to be able to run a small business using library resources – not just books on business plans, or resources on improving my pitch talks, but actual, physical space and experts that I can use for my business." Creative people can use the space as a studio for working on their art, music, or other projects. Fabricators and makers can use their tools and the space to create stuff, which they can sell elsewhere. People who want to read can have quiet spaces to read, in stark contrast to all the other activity going on in the library. If necessary, or for kicks and giggles, the library could be turned into a giant game board or mini-golf tournament on the fly. Since buildings are a giant investment for libraries, we need community members to help steer the design process so that we build libraries not just of the future, but that will continue to exist in the future without needing to be torn down or remodeled at great expense. We need community members to tell us what their ideal public library would be able to do and look like, so that the design isn't stuck in the past or caters only to one use. Public librarians are great at building buildings that work for public librarians. We're not that great about building buildings that the public will use.

We also need advocates in our communities. A pitch from the public library about how awesome the library is might work for people who are looking specifically for the things the library is talking about and offering, but for people who aren't specifically looking for what we're offering, a library pitch usually has no effect. Even though someone might actually need what we're offering. People have stereotypes of what goes on in public libraries and what public libraries do. For soem people, I wonder if it isn't because their last meaningful experience with a library was before they turned twenty-five. How many of you stopped going to any library after college? And then possibly picked it up again when you had children come into your life? Or when you had a major life-changing event and you needed to rely on the free resources available at a public library?

There's a really big group of people who could use the public library, and who probably should use the public library, but aren't. And public libraries are notoriously re-active to change in the society around them, rather than pro-active about anticipating them. A fairly recent example, as libraries go, is children's services. While free public libraries, in one form or another, have been around for a very long time, the idea that children might also benefit from the public library is, going by Anne Carroll Moore's tenure at the New York Public Library (1906-1941), barely out of its own adolescence. From there, the idea of the "young adult" and need for their services has only been around for half of children's services (YALSA, the division of the American Library Association that handles this, was formed in 1957). After that, the digital explosion that started with personal computers, became worldwide with the World Wide Web, and continues with our increasingly powerful and small gadgets and computers has tossed everyone overboard to sink or swim. Public libraries have finally, several decades after the beginning of the World Wide Web, mostly worked our way through the basics of the digital revolution. The problem is, then the Maker movement arrived, hot on the heels of ideas like gaming in libraries, and public libraries started waking up to the reality that the programming options they were putting on were highly parent-focused (e.g. Story Time), highly book-focused (e.g. book clubs), and highly school-focused, with buildings and systems that reflected this ingrained bias. The new world requires flexibility and agility in thinking about all aspects of public library service. To be an effective public library, we need constant feeds of input and the ability to tap the community on request to meet demands.

Examining just one facet of this new world, YALSA put out The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action on January 8, 2014. danah boyd's It's Complicated examines another of these multiplying facets.

Your abilities may be best put to use convincing the community around you that there are necessary changes incoming to your area, and that the library can help with adapting to those changes. Or you can tell your friends that have difficult questions, want to learn new skills, or are otherwise trying to problem-solve that the public library has stuff on that (or can get it in a pretty short time). Or you can talk about the only free space in town to meet and do work. You can put your Slytherin skills to use and build a coalition strong enough to break inertia and force change, both in the public library and in the community.

Finally, the public library needs more diversity in our staffing as well as in our collection. The minimum degree for a librarian is a Master's degree, which takes two years of graduate school to obtain. Unsurprisingly, that often places the profession out of reach for many. Some schools are starting to react to this reality by offering undergraduate courses and degrees in library sciences. But even then, a four year degree can be prohibitively expensive. We not only need diverse library workers, we also need to figure out ways of lowering the barriers to entry for the profession, so that we can more accurately represent the communities that the public library is part of. Otherwise, the profession will continue to remain mostly white and female, a tiny sampling of the real diversity of library communities

We need your help to build the libraries of the future. Otherwise, we'll just be building more of the same.