The Public Library Can Be an Open-Source Institution

The Shift

Public libraries are remarkably well-suited to the task of becoming fully and unreservedly open-source institutions. In the past, they solved the problem of mass availability of information by selecting and curating collections intended to answer general and specific questions. Because of their nature as a tax-supported institution, public libraries also are solving questions of how to help those with limited resources by providing entertainment collections, materials to children and teens, specialized tools, programming, collaborations, and Internet access for free. The system worked in the past because those needs were the most important ones in a literate and productive community.

In the Internet age, however, mass availability of information has shifted from a problem of scarcity to a problem of glut. Public libraries and librarians are now required to use the parts of their training that involve sifting, sorting, and selecting material to provide maximum information per unit. The problem of providing for those without hasn't gone away, and in the recession, became significantly more important than it had been before. And there's significant commercial competition for content delivery that didn't exist in the pre-Internet age. Public libraries still have problems to solve, but they are not the same problems that they were. Instead, public libraries have to solve questions of mass surveillance, decreased privacy and security in software programs and Internet-based services, and problems of mass availability of tools that their community needs to be able to succeed.

The open-source public library of the future is one that runs on its community, taking their inputs and producing collections, programs, spaces, philosophies, and systems that meet the needs and aspirations of those communities, and do their work in the places where the community is present. Without that community, a public library is what the librarians think the community wants, and librarians aren't representative enough of their communities to accurately predict what the community actually wants.

Right now, most public libraries are somewhere in the middle of this pivot, tentatively testing the waters, or in about neck-deep and floundering, looking for a way to shore. Some of them refuse to get in, believing that these problems will go away on their own. A few libraries dove in and are ready to swim to the next shore. The majority, though, are looking for a way across, and the open-source community can lend a hand in getting them there, with expertise, with cool software programs, and with advocating for and defining expectations of what a public library means, so that the public library can, in turn, shape itself to meet those expectations as much as possible.