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

Alex Byrne

Pierce County Library System

Contact me at: abyrne at pcls dot us

Or @HeofHIShirts on Twitter

For Open Source Bridge 2015

An Open-Source Institution...

The original title for this presentation was going to be "The Public Library Is An Open Source Institution", and I was going to loudly and happily proclaim that we're transparent and accountable and just about everything we do, we publish the methods for so that if anyone wanted to replicate a public library, they could do so, with enough time and resources.

For example, want to know how we choose what materials are going to be stocked in a library? Here, take a look at Pierce County Library System's Selection Policy.

Would you like some of our core guiding documents? Have the Library Bill of Rights and the Washington Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Statement. That should give you an idea on how to act, and if anything's confusing, there's always plenty of support documentation on the Web.

How should we treat privacy issues? Pierce County Library System has a policy for that, too.

We even offer materials about making decisions on whether or not someone to join the library profession.

But what if you want to create your very own library? Well, if you want to organize your library by various subjects, like the Library of Congress's Subject Headings, you can do that. They're available for free.

The Library of Congress Classification System is currently freely available, so that you can organize your shelves according to an established and complete classification scheme. The Library of Congress even provide some useful rules and interpretations on how to resolve conflicts and where to put things.

And you can use an Integrated Library System (ILS) that can handle many of the functions related to materials, and people, using standards like MARC, Dublin Core, or ONIX for Books to create records that computers and servers can handle.

Evergreen or Koha are both open-source ILS that provide functions to catalog and check out materials, register people, and search for things that are in the library or the community.

With the right degree, you can be trained as a librarian, or hire some, so that all of the things you've built have staff to maintain them and answer questions and such things. Presto, instant library, yes?


What about the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), the system that most people in a public library are used to, rather than the significantly more academically-inclined LC system? The Dewey Decimal Classification is under copyright to OCLC (Onlince Computer Library Center), and they will happily tell you that it always has been. If you want to know how the Dewey Classification works and to be able to use it correctly, you're going to have to pay for it. In a subscription. Worse, the DDC has been with us for about 150 years and has put out 23 releases, which officially makes its update schedule slower than Debian Linux. We're paying for a system that doesn't respond quickly to new things, and doesn't reconfigure itself when serious problems are pointed out with its structure. For example, ranges 200-290 in the DDC are almost exclusively devoted to Christianity, leaving a tenth of the possible ranges available for other religious belief systems. Computers and technology weren't around when the DDC first came into existence, so they have all been shoehorned into the 000 range, under "General Knowledge".

Even worse, though, is that the rules for cataloging things, how to properly construct records, resolve conflicts, determine what authority to use, and so forth, adopted as Resource Description and Access (RDA, originally the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules), that, you're going to have to pay for. In a subscription.

The ideas underlying that framework, including FRBR – Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records - and FRAD – Functional Requirements for Authority Data - are available for free as published specifications, but the actual RDA itself is going to cost you money.

So, that whole idea about the library being completely open-source, such that someone could recreate a fully-functioning one with the right people, source code, and training?

To put it succinctly, FAIL.

...And How

That failure extends in multiple directions, beyond one of the core functions of maintaining collections in public libraries ending up locked behind a paywall. Many of the ILS available run exclusively on proprietary operating systems like Windows, and are closed-source corporate products, as well. Users and libraries can request new features and hope that they're going to get them, but there's no way of unleashing a dedicated set of programmers on your ILS to get new functions into the source.

Furthermore, many of the products, services, and vendors that libraries contract with and that library users interact with on library computers engage in marketing to libraries and their customers, through advertisements, restrict the ability of library customers to use the product through non-optional DRM schemes, introduce "friction" or unnecessary steps in the process of borrowing a book from a library versus purchasing it from a vendor, or track their data and aggregate it into algorithms, sometimes overtly, often not. For example, a very popular program for reading lent library electronic books, Adobe Digital Editions (which contains an Adobe DRM scheme), started sending cleartext information about the reading habits of anyone that used the 4.0 release of the Adobe Digital Editions Software. The solution to the problem given to us by Adobe was not to openly cease with the spying, but Adobe reassured everyone that they were sending data that was encrypted instead of in the clear with the 4.01 release of Adobe Digital Editions. The underlying problem was not solved, only obfuscated.

In addition to private enterprises, using laws like the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), government intrudes and dictates to public libraries what they must do to prevent curious teenagers from reading accurate information about their bodies and their developing sexuality, in exchange for receiving a discounted rate on their Internet access. The requirement dictates a "technology prevention measure" to prevent minors from accessing content deemed harmful to them, which is most commonly implemented using filtering software, which is ineffective against a teenager with a modicum of curiosity and technical skill.

Using USAPATRIOT ("The Patriot Act") Section 215, the government can request any records kept by a public library. It does not require the standard of proof for the issuance of a search warrant to do so, and any library so served is often given a legal requirement to say nothing about the intrusion by the government into those records. The reason we know about the accompanying gag orders involved is because a library in Connecticut was able to successfully challenge the gag order in a Section 215 request in court after a protracted battle. Again, the underlying order was not countermanded, and so whatever was requested by the government still had to be delivered, but they could at least tell people that it happened.

Mentioning these laws is one way the government may be able to collect data that should be private. The government likely has the ability to directly capture information in one way or another, through the use of surveillance on communications systems, exploitation of flaws or deliberate backdoors installed or introduced into operating systems, or other methods that generally are not governed by open warrants or effectively overseen by the entities those agencies are nominally subordinate to. There's a lot still unknown about the breadth and depth of spying and surveillance programs, and there's no guarantee that legislators or anyone else with the power to effectively stop the programs knows the extent of the programs.

Public Libraries are screwed, right?

Even if we could fix many of the problems mentioned above through technical measures, there are underlying cultural issues involving public libraries and the perception of the public. Public libraries have often acted as gatekeepers of Approved Knowledge and Culture, and in a world where access to those resources was scarce and expensive, the public library was an excellent solution to the problem - it lifted the burden away from the individual and put it on the community. It would probably not be too far out of line to say that public libraries are now the victims of their own success using this paradigm.

If someone thinks about a public library as merely a repository of books or other physical materials to be browsed, checked out, and returned, then they deservedly have a rather dim view of libraries surviving into the digital age. Even if someone thinks of the library as a repository for all kinds of information, including digital collections, on-line journal access, and physical objects, they're still not liking our chances of survival. Who would blame them for thinking this? Google and other search engines improve daily by leaps and bounds in terms of finding any seemingly-random bit of data that's somewhere on the World Wide Web. What used to be a matter of ready reference tools (like almanacs) and specialized reference publications for finding data is now so well taken-over by search engines that they can predict what it is we're looking for before we even finish typing it.

What are you looking for?

Netflix gives you an unlimited amount of discs and streaming offerings, limited only by how much you want (or can afford) to have out at any given time.
Hulu Plus, as well as streaming options through apps or websites for individual networks or channels, and even sport packages that allows for streaming of whatever games you fancy to whatever device can handle them.
There are a lot of players in that market, each of whom can give you a digital or physical copy of whatever you would like (so long as it's currently in print) as fast or slow as you would like, for a little bit of nothing.
The iTunes Store is doing brisk business in that regard, but there's also services like Bandcamp, as well as directly purchasing music from artist websites
Video Games
Valve's Steam is the leader here in streaming and DRM copies of games, with a slick interface, but there's also Desura, EA's Origin, GOG, Google Play, and the App Stores for Mac, iOS, Windows, and so on.
Physical objects?
Amazon can get them to you in two days' or faster time (assuming you pay for that privilege).

And frankly, if none of those options appeal to you, there's always things like The Pirate Bay, one of the largest peer-driven content discovery systems in existence. Paired with the BitTorrent protocol, you have one of the fastest content-delivery systems in existence as well, assuming you are either properly anonymized or your ISP doesn't care about copyright violation fines and notices.

This should not be a new idea in public libraries. Eli Neiburger (@ulotrichous), a librarian (and many other things) at the Ann Arbor District Library, gave a talk in 2010 at a Library Journal / School Library Journal summit called Libraries At The Tipping Point called "Libraries Are Screwed". Both parts are available on YouTube - Part I talks about the large and looming threats that public libraries face in the new digital world, and Part II is about the ways in which public libraries can (have to) reinvent themselves to stay present and relevant to the new reality.

Public libraries have arrived at the point where people expect us to be as seamless as the other places and services they are used to. Unfortunately, in the digital realm, publishers and content providers tend to think of us as pirates, lending and sharing things that aren't really ours to people who haven't paid for them, rather than as valuable community partners. So they introduce "friction" into our processes to make it much more appealing for someone to buy a license for content with one click than to get it for free with libraries, which often involves two sign-ups, a login, and five more clicks. And that's assuming they let us into the market at all. Content providers and distributors have found ways to freeze libraries out of the process without having to contend with the rules that say "once you've bought something, you can do with it whatever you want to" by saying that public libraries are only licensing the content, instead of buying it, and so the public library has no real ownership or rights to do what they want with that content.

Public libraries cannot continue to exist merely as a repository for information and as a system for content delivery. There are far too many other entities and companies that can do that, and can do it better and faster than libraries can. Sure, you can't beat our price, but most people are willing to go with "I can get this quickly" over "I can get this for free". Commercial entities have a vastly more expansive collection of things to offer than our limited library budgets can dream of. We can't scale to that kind of degree to keep everybody happy.

So, why should you care?

So, public libraries are going to have to change. Big whoop. What good is a public library, anyway, if all these alternate content delivery systems exist and can do things better than libraries?

Free as in beer

Well, the first line of defense a public library puts up as to why you should care about them is that their services and materials require no up-front cost to use. The cost is paid through taxes, but truthfully, property tax levies for libraries are approximately the cost of one or two utterly foul coffee drinks at your local overpriced and overrated store per month when a library is at the ceiling of their taxing ability. For people who are new to the community, recently unemployed (or the long-term unemployed of the Great Recession after the housing crash of 2007), and those who, say, child labor laws prevent from making money to buy their own things, having a community resource without up-front cost is important in being able to participate in the digital and physical community, research ideas, solve problems, and acclimate to their new environment, among other things. Free space, free Internet access, free resources, free use of really expensive technologies. Free is good.

More often than not, the public library is used for civic groups, game-players, political organizations, municipal meetings, and many other organizations that need space to house all of their members and that provide some amenities for presentation or for meetings. We're usually the only game in town that does it for free, so long as you adhere to a couple of rules about who can attend (usually, everyone), and what you can charge for your event (sometimes, cost of materials, otherwise, nothing). More often than not, we're fighting with everyone else for our meeting room space to do programming in, because our meeting room space options are just that good.

The public library is rapidly becoming, if we're not already there, the last institution that's accessible by everyone that doesn't have a rent, cover, or other up-front charge just for access. If the public library dies, a large part of your institutions and groups die, too.


Price is only a partial defense. The open-source community knows this. "Why would you pay money for corporate drek when a perfectly good free alternative is available?" If that free alternative doesn't work, isn't designed with a good UI, requires a significant amount of training before being able to use well, or otherwise isn't able to hit that sweet spot of Superior (Or At Least Good Enough) and Just Works, an open-source alternative often fails out, even if it's a well-marketed one.

Free as in freedom

The other major line of defense a public library can put up is that they're interested in keeping others away from your data, whether corporate or govermnental, if they keep that data in the first place. Additionally, public libraries, usually as a matter of policy, have a strong commitment to having diverse materials for access and in making sure that everyone, regardless of their identity, ability, or status, can use the materials, programs, and things that are available in the public library. Many public libraries don't keep histories of things library cards have checked out in the past, restrict the types of materials that can be checked out, or monitor internet usage by people to see which sites are being visited.

Libraries of all sorts profess that they will fight censorship whenever it appears, and when it comes from an outside entity looking to restrict books from the collection or seeking records that it really has no business collecting, public libraries and librarians are usually pretty good about fighting off that particular spectre.

Perhaps most prosaically, though, a large part of our computer users enjoy Facebook, Twitter, Google applications, and, in their daily browsing habits, probably provide more information to data-miners, ad companies, corporate entities, and government spies than they might realize. Public libraries aren't always at the vanguard of informing people about how much data is collected about them and in deploying their systems in a maximally-private and secure, yet still functional, manner. There are tools available, but public librarians don't always know about them, nor do they always have the technical knowledge needed to deploy them effectively. Most of our computers are running Microsoft Windows, with Internet Explorer as the default browser. As the PRISM and other NSA revelations pointed out, that's the equivalent of claiming you have a state of the art security system to fight off intruders, but you leave all the doors and windows of your house not only unlocked, but wide open. It is very difficult to protest those things that you cannot see and that do not leave traces of their activity behind.

The world of "private" is rapidly shrinking down, and public libraries are trying to maintain themselves as a place where "private" truly is, as best they know how. Regardless of what you may believe about the successes of these endeavours, that public libraries are trying makes them a valuable ally.

These are not easy concepts to necessarily pull into an elevator speech. Plus, they're arguments for why a public library doesn't need to change. But just sitting in the pocket of "free" isn't going to be enough. Change is a necessary component to relevance, and modernizing and diversifying what goes under the library umbrella is an excellent way to start.

Diversification is good...

As an example, I tried to use Linux in 2003, back when Mandrake, which became Mandriva, before Mandriva died and forked out to Mageia was the hot distribution for usage, competing with Red Hat Linux, which had a desktop version at the time. (The desktop Red Hat would merge with another project to become Fedora.) In this 2003 world, simple things like playing sounds and movies required a lot of console typing, scouring for libraries, solutions, and configuration files just to get ALSA (the Advanced Linux Sound Archietecture) set up correctly and able to play common media formats. On this attempt, I could not accomplish what I considered basic tasks on a Linux system, and trying made me think of all the tricks I had to play with MS-DOS to get around the memory requirements and play later-generation graphical adventure games. It was not a fun situation.

Fast forward just four years to 2007, or so, where, as a graduate student in library science, I decided to give Linux another go, as a dual-boot setup on a new computer that a friend had bought me, tired of how much I was complaining about how Windows was sucking resources on the old one. The hot distribution was Ubuntu at the time, in both its GNOME and KDE versions. After installing my preferred flavor, there were clear directions on how to install any non-free codecs (those that would require a license fee to be paid to use) from the repositories, assuming you had the proper licenses to do so (or were willing to take the risk of being sued by those companies for installing those codecs). There was a suite of default software installed that handled most basic tasks a user would expect their desktop computer to do, and if I wanted to update the system to the newest available software, it took two commands:

  • sudo apt-get update
  • sudo apt-get upgrade

Additionally, Ubuntu made it a promise to include major software updates every six months, on schedule, alleviating the need to hunt down and find the latest versions of programs to update them. As a system, Ubuntu was At Least Good Enough as Windows, and it Just Worked. The threshold had been crossed.

Jumping ahead again to today, with more Linux experience, as well as having shifted through Linux Mint to Arch Linux and now I only need one command to update my system, any time that I would like to do so:

  • yaourt -Syua

That's more like it. Ease of use, of updating, and enough software to do the functions that I'm going to need, and some functions that I might discover I need later on. That's what makes Linux a contender now for the desktop and mobile environments. There's still some work to be done on making those update commands more human-friendly, less cryptic, and in developing excellent GUI interfaces for the update commands, but that we can get it down to one command to make the system seamlessly update itself is a good thing.

How this extended metaphor applies to public libraries is that many public libraries are now operating more like Mandrake than Mint or Arch. If you have the patience, the time, the ability to come to the public library's buildings, and are willing to learn the library way and vocabulary, you too can accomplish great things with your public library's resources. Outside the public library, though, the world is moving on and building, compiling, and releasing newer tools that make the processes that public libraries are supposed to be very good at much much easier to use, using resources and fees and other things from outside the public library. If we want to insist on certain things, we need to do it in a way that's at least explainable (a la The Arch Way, even though The Arch Way itself may not be the best way of articulating good public library principles and ideas) and that will constantly re-evaluate its decisions to see whether or not the way that's been decided on is really still the best way.

...collaboration is better.

Public libraries tend to concentrate themselves in strategically-placed buildings so as to be effective at serving the majority of their populations. "Majority", however, does not mean "everyone", and for very rural people, or people who don't/can't cross various parts of their urban or rural space, public library service would be limited to any outreach the library does to their neighborhoods. Which can be nice, but is no substitute for being able to utilize all of the library's resources on a regular basis.

There's also the question of permanence for many objects. If I bought a paperback to read, and I have no intention of keeping it after I have finished reading it, what do I do with it? Donating it to the library will likely have it put into a book sale to raise money for the library, which means another person will pay a greatly reduced price for it and be able to enjoy the book (and possibly re-donate it when they are done, continuing to generate money for the library.). For some people, they want the books they are discarding to be read on a wider scale than one at a time, with a single price. For others, they want to have collections of materials freely available, but they can't trek to their library on a regular basis. And still others are trying to find ways of distributing their own materials on a wider scale without the benefit of a large publishing company behind them.

Little Free Libraries / PirateBoxen / LibraryBoxen

Enter Little Free Libraries. A Little Free Library (LFL) is a physical structure where the community surrounding it can exchange books, and possibly, other materials, and those materials will be protected from the elements and destructive abilities of the outdoors while they wait to be taken to a new home.

While you can purchase a ready-built Little Free Library for your area, there are also plans and guides available for people to build their own Little Free Libraries, with no set requirement on what a Little Free Library looks like. (Little Free Libraries would like a person that builds a LFL to register and pay a one-time fee to make it Official, though.) The Little Free Libraries are basically an open-source method for physical content exchange and distribution. Once built and placed, the community around can share their materials with each other. It's not a complete package of library services, but a public library with an outreach program might be persuadable to set up outreach stops near Little Free Libraries so as to provide a fuller library experience in those areas. If the Little Free Library is a busy one, it's already a guarantee that members of the community are going there. Your public library will hopefully understand that they don't have to search for a spot to reach your community if there's already one there to take advantage of. If not, explain it to them.

The Little Free Libraries concept covers physical materials (for the most part, anyway) that the community can exchange. What about digital materials? How cool would it be, in our increasingly gadget-filled world, to be able to offer a collection of hundreds of free e-books for our devices? Stop by the Little Free Library, exchange a few physical books, download hundreds more to your e-reader.

Jason Griffey has just the thing for you. Building on David Darts' idea for the PirateBox, an anonymous, peer-to-peer file-sharing, chat, and forum device restricted to the range of a wireless router running a customized build of OpenWRT, a rooted Android phone running the app, or other PirateBox setups for computers and routers, Griffey removed the ability for people connected to the device to upload content (because while public libraries are sharing institutions, they can only share as much as the law and any permissions granted allows them to) but otherwise kept the core of the PirateBox intact, and called it the LibraryBox. Since neither PirateBox nor LibraryBox requires an Internet connection, it's a perfect way of setting up content distribution in remote areas, areas with spotty connections, or anywhere else that someone would want to have a cache of electronic materials available for download without needing an Internet connection. LibraryBoxen also have the ability to synchronize themselves with a master box, so a public library that used a LibraryBox for distributing programming materials could easily update the available materials during an outreach stop, letting the master box change out the materials on the subordinate boxes.

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.

Building A Community

In addition to building infrastructure for the sharing of things and tools, the public library needs to also be able to develop infrastructure so that they can help generate community and encourage the fostering of communities that see the public library as a valuable partner and resource. This is harder than it looks, but there are some success stories to emulate.

On-line: Teen Summer Challenge and Scout

In 2011, Pierce County Library System (PCLS) embarked on a radical re-thinking of the teen summer reading program. A program that was solely focused on books and accumulation of reading time for rewards wasn't reaching a whole lot of teens – the numbers were workable enough that the library system could hide behind this or that statistic to make it seem less of a failure, but a clear minority of people were the ones making up the majority of the recorded reading time. Rather than trying to promote books to teenagers (and there were always lots of good books to promote), the teen librarians at the time, Meredith Hale (@ladyluck131) and Jami Schwarzwalder, took the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets and paired them up with a new trend just emerging onto the World Wide Web - gamification. In gamification, activities that were normally just activities became wrapped in a game-like environment, adding points, badges, achievements, social elements, and more to produce a more game-like experience. As a guide, Meredith and Jami used Bartle's four types of MUD player, first released in 1996 (proving that librarians know how to make the old new again quite well), and given a more modern-looking form as the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology to try and incorporate elements to the game that would appear to a diverse range of players.

Their conclusion was to discard the idea of reading (in its myriad forms) as the single defining thing for a summer program, and so reading became one of many activities and experiences laid out for teens in what is branded the Teen Summer Challenge. The challenge itself was spun out to a Wordpress installation, using mostly off-the-shelf plug-in components like BuddyPress to build the achievements, activities, leaderboards, and social spaces that would comprise the challenge, augmented where affordable through contact with the developers of those plugins and occasional commissioned code. The first year of the Challenge, 2012, did quite well in terms of participation (600+ registrations, of which a little over 50% performed an action to earn points) compared to the previous year's reading-only program (a little over 100 participants). Feedback was generally positive, and there was a lot of learning experience about building and running a community for the teen librarians and their supporting staff, dubbed the Grand Master Committee (GMC). (A fuller write-up of Teen Summer Challenge is available as a chapter in Teen Games Rule! A Librarian's Guide To Programs And Platforms) Since Teen Summer Challenge only officially runs during the school break in summer, if you want to observe the platform during a live session, you'll have to visit then.

The success of Teen Summer Challenge ensured a repeat performance in 2013 with better administration and tools in place to deal with the influx of material that had to be approved by the GMC to distribute points and badges. Initially, all activities for points and badges had to be approved by the The GMC. The committee understood, however, that increased participation would mean increased workload, and there would be a point in the process where it became unsustainable for the GMC to continue approving activities in its present form. Either more staff would have to be added to the GM group, or the platform and program would have to be re-worked again. The second year introduced the ability for players to "self-claim" the lower-level badges as a way of lightening the workload on the GMs. As a stopgap measure, this decision was effective, but the problem of scale still loomed large in the distance. Without some answer to that question, Teen Summer Challenge would continue to consume more staff time until it collapsed under its own weight.

To try and solve that problem and build on the success of Teen Summer Challenge by opening the idea up to a wider audience, PCLS secured a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to build an "Interactive Discovery Platform" – an underlying framework, built around Wordpress, that multiple different programs could be run on top of to target different interests, age groups, and ability levels. The first two applications to come out of the IDP are a reworked Teen Summer Challenge, rebuilt to take advantage of the new platform, and Scout, which takes the concept first fostered and researched in the early incarnation of Teen Summer Challenge and throws it open for adults to take advantage of.

Regrettably, Pierce County Library System closed down Scout at the end of 02015. No word yet on whether the underlying code will be open-sourced so that others will be able to replicate the Platform for their own purposes.

The Platform, at the most basic level, offers activities that players can complete to collect an amount of points. Activities consist of self-claimable items ("I did it!"), items that request a response of some sort ("Write a paragraph about what you think / upload a picture of your completed efforts"), claim codes that are specific triggers (answers to questions, or specific phrases placed inside locations that are related to activities), referral links ("Ah, you've read to the end of our policies page. Click on this link here to get your points."), and, because we're a public library, people can input items with an ISBN to get points for activities like "Recommend a book for fans of television show X." Activities can be set to require a manual review of the submitted content by a moderator or administrators before approval.A group of activities all around the same theme forms a badge, which is awarded, along with optional bonus points, after the completion of all the activities in the group. Badges are organized into categories.

This doesn't make Scout, or Teen Summer Challenge for that matter, anything gigantically different than other gamification applications. I do think we're a bit different in that, once it's been robustly developed enough, we plan on releasing as much source code as possible so that everyone else can build their own applications on top of the platform, contributing back to the community that helped us build our platform.

What's most interesting about both Scout and Teen Summer Challenge is that they're building a community around the activities. Teen Summer Challenge's participants took to the social aspects of the platform faster, but both Teen Summer Challenge and Scout participants were soon mentioning each other, commenting on activities, and using their shared love of the subjects (and their sometimes personal knowledge of each other outside of the platform) as a focal point to interact with each other and the library staff in mostly positive ways. Staff, for their part, try to protect the community from spammers, trolls, cheaters, and other anti-community behaviors and encourage more interaction and detail from the submissions that come in. Staff are encouraged to organically suggest library or community activities that participants might find useful to continue their explorations or to help them get past a particularly difficult question. In Scout's Forums, some of the community members are also taking on those roles, with threads on how to do alternatives for activities where allergies will become a problem or for someone who doesn't have a readily-available camera and is supposed to take pictures. By trying to make the focus of Scout on the community, rather than on the activities, PCLS is hoping to build something longer-lasting and that will be used by more people.

The community aspect for Scout has also produced methods to collect feedback for the libraries to incorporate. An activity asks people to try out one of our downloadable services and tell us about how easy or hard it was to use. Another asks a player to go into one of our branches and ask for some book recommendations. From these activities, we find out useful things about the library that we may not have received through standard survey methods. We're happy to find that our staff gets consistently rated well by people on their knowledge and friendliness. And that one of our on-line partners is clearly being used head-and-shoulders above the rest for the challenge. The community gives us feedback; we adjust to meet the community's needs through our expertise and programs. That seems like the essence of a good open-source institution to me.

In Person: The 4th Floor

So, Little Free Libraries and LibraryBoxen are great at delivering content that's been selected by the community for inclusion. Programs like Scout and Teen Summer Challenge are trying to build a community of digital users to interact on library-curated and library-owned space, using and learning about library, community, and reputable Internet resources that are available to them. The last piece of this puzzle is transforming the physical library space itself to make it into a more open place where the community can use it and the resources available to advance their own interests, ideas, and even businesses. Most public libraries already open up their meeting room spaces to the community, and some public libraries are building dedicated spaces for various activities, like Makerspaces, fab labs, and media recording and editing labs. These are great starts toward a more open plan for library space and resources.

Chattanooga Public Library took things one step further. Instead of creating spaces designed for specific activities, they took the fourth floor of their library building and made it a wide-open lab for the public to come and do things with. The 4th Floor as it is now is an experimentation space, with several companies and startups working in partnership to hold events, use equipment, and provide the community with a big blank canvas that they can arrange to suit their needs. It's not just "here's a place where you can meet", it's "here's a place where you can launch your own business, with tools, knowledge, expertise, and events all available to help make that dream a success." Or "here's a place where you can pick up skills and use equipment that would be prohibitively expensive to acquire individually." Or "here's the place where you can drop an art installation, exhibit your work, and then pack it up and move on to the next spot, having exposed library people to something new and different." Common Libraries had a great write-up of the 4th Floor space and the uses the community in Chattanooga have found for it. By providing space for the community to remix, instead of just tools for the community to use in remixing their own spaces, Chattanooga opens up a possible way for the last component of an open-source institution – the way by which the community can make the walls, the floors, and the furniture suit the needs of the moment and of the long-term. How many other places in our lives can make the claim that the community shapes them as something other than the result of highly-focused demographic research meant to separate your money from your person?

Attempting change from within

So the library needs to make some changes to its underlying models if it wants to continue operations and not be consigned to the dust bins of history. For some of us, that means re-evaluating what we're saying in our mission statements and our philosophies. I like to pick on my own institution, because I like them and want them to do better, and because I have firsthand experience with how things go (or don't) with ideas, so here's what my library says in our Philosophy Statement:

The Library:

  • Offers current, up-to-date, customer-focused services, experiences, facilities, technology and resources.
  • Provides welcoming places for the community to gather and interact.
  • Demonstrates leadership in the Library field, embracing the spirit of innovation and thoughtful risk taking in service of the community and its residents.
  • Actively engages communities and residents about what they value and want from the Library and uses this input to inform Library actions and choices.
  • Is an innovative community leader and cooperates, collaborates and partners with agencies, community groups, organizations and others to achieve common goals and to effectively and efficiently support, provide and deliver resources and services the community needs and values.
  • Operates as a System in order to provide equitable service for all communities in its service area, and in recognition that the best use of money and resources is achieved by sharing materials and resources, professional skills and knowledge, and administrative support.
  • Acts as a good steward of the taxpayer's dollar and makes decisions that best serve the community.
  • Seeks to serve residents where they want, when they want and how they want, including in Library facilities, in the community and online.

Not bad, yeah? It's a lovely, lofty goal. And if we can achieve this, we'll be rock stars.


Implementation is one of those ways that you can royally screw up even the best ideas, as someone who works in UX testing could tell you. Take, for example, the idea of "equitable service". That could mean we're striving to provide the same kinds of experiences at our most far-flung, rural branch communities as we are in our urban zones. As our numbers will tell you, though, one program may be wildly popular in one community and have zero attendance in the next, whether it's intended for adults, teenagers, tweenagers, kids, families – you name it, we have variances in our statistics for attendance and interest. According to our philosophical statements, though, if we want to provide "equitable service", that suggests we may not necessarily take those regional variances into account and tailor our programming ideas to those things that are interesting. Which is a waste of time and resources. Not exactly "good stewards of the taxpayer's dollar" or "decisions that best serve the community." And it's certainly not giving people services where they want, when they want, and how they want.

Additionally, our far-flung regional locations are usually smaller in size, collection, and population. "Equitable service" would mean having a proper proportion of professionals for their needs and community, so that they received the same high-quality service that our larger, more metropolitan communities get. They don't. At our smallest locations, there's not a guarantee that there will be a degreed librarian working the reference desk to answer questions. Most of them get a visit from a Youth librarian once a week to take care of collection matters and maybe squeeze in a program. It's nothing approaching "equitable service", and it's certainly not the good kind of inequitable, where things are tailored to the needs of the community around.

To my organization's credit, though, they recognized things weren't working, and constructed a new service model, collapsing what were many desks in many places in the buildings into a single desk in each building where all functions could be taken care of and questions answered. The idea was to be able to free up the degreed librarians to pursue more programming options, community and school contacts, and to be able to do the in-depth think-work that produces really good library service. Non-degreed staff would be trained in how to answer most basic reference questions in addition to their duties regarding handling people accounts, monies, and the less glamourous tasks of running a library.

And then the recession hit. This had the general effect of soaking all those paper cuts the library was suffering from in salt brine. The single-desk model went forward, but instead of librarians having lots of non-public time to plot and go out into the community soliciting information and doing cool things, the librarians were used to fill holes in the desk model, and a new model emerged that, at those institutions that had them, at least one degreed librarian would have to be on the floor during all the hours the library was open. This fragmented the librarians' schedules and often achieved the opposite effect than the one that was intended with the single-desk model.

Once again, a charitable description of the results might be explained as: Today's experiment...failed.

Encouraging Change From Without

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.

Expect More

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.)

If the reason you get is "no budget", then you may have to advocate for us to be able to increase our available monies before we can continue on the path to being open-source. Here's a secret about library funding: it's really hard to get. In Washington State, where I'm headquartered, if the library wants to pass any issues regarding raising bond money or trying to take advantage of a good economy to raise more money and deliver more services, the library first has to get 40% of the people who turned out to the last general election to vote on the issue, regardless of whether they say yes or no. If the library manages that, then the library has to convince 60% of the total people who have voted on the issue that they want to pony up the additional tax money. So the library not only has to motivate enough people to get out and vote, we then have to convince a supermajority of those who do vote to approve more funding for us. Let's put it this way – it's already hard enough for the library to convince people to keep them funded. Even more so in an environment where a significant number of people believe all taxes are evil and should be abolished, regardless of what services or benefits they generate. A public library has a vested interest in not generating additional heat against them. In some unfortunate cases, that may be a greater motivator for a public library to change than the desire for the library to be an institution that truly reflects its community.

Expect more from your public library, and they will try their hardest to meet your raised expectations. Otherwise, they're screwed, and they know it. (Or they should, anyway.)

Teach us and each other

If you're not exhausted yet, or those other two ideas didn't really appeal that much, the library needs you to impart your skills to other members of the community, but also to the staff. In public libraries, we serve both the most up-to-date gadget wizards and people who are far more comfortable with a manual-action Remington typewriter than a word processor.

Here's another secret of the public library: The staff probably doesn't know enough about enough to actually be knowledgeable about everything. However, we're really good at being able to find that knowledge quickly and accurately, whether in printed or electronic form. Search engines are great at returning results, librarians are great at returning information. The algorithms can sort spam from wheat from chaff, but the people can select which of the results will be most useful at that moment in time.

Knowing how to find knowledge, however, is different than having that knowledge at hand, and is very different than the knowledge that comes from doing something for many years. Most of us can cook from recipes, myself included, but if you handed me a bunch of ingredients and put me in a kitchen, saying, "I'll see you in an hour for something delicious", if the food was edible by the time I was done, I would call the whole thing a success. I don't have the knowledge and practice that allows me to see complete dishes from ingredients. Similarly, if you put me in a room with a computer and a tutorial for a language and asked me to build a complex program, I'd try, but I don't think it would be very elegant. If the program ran at all. A librarian's expertise is in finding things that are organized in a system (preferably a logical one), and in having a broad base of knowledge to be able to get people started on their own pursuits and endeavors. Passionate people who want to learn more or hone and perfect their craft, however, will rapidly outstrip the expertise that librarians have, unless the librarian is equally as passionate and expert at that thing. The likelihood of that, however, is tempting the Random Number God in ways that rarely end well.

For this aspect of becoming an open-source institution, we need from you a willingness to teach or mentor or be there as a peer advocate. If you have a computer users' group that meets in library space regularly, invite one of the staff in during a meeting to see what's going on – if the library knows what you are doing and when you meet, they can begin to see you as more than just a scheduled appointment on their meeting room calendars. You become a resource that can be tapped to help someone else. Or, if the library wants to put on a program, they may ask you to provide expertise to shape and perform a program that people will get a lot out of and want to come back for more.

In some libraries, the staff will approach you and try to get to know you proactively. In a lot of other ones, the staff will need you to approach them, because they're already pressed for time as it is between collection work, public service at the branch, outreach to the community, fiscal decisions, programming, and the work of the library that goes on away from the places the public sees. They want to be engaged with all of you, collaborating with you, and trying to make their space and collections the very best they can be for you (and everyone else). If your public library isn't actively trying to recruit you, volunteer yourself to them.

Help us design our systems of the future

Koha, Evergreen, and other open-source ILSes are a good start to getting public libraries into full citizenship in the open-source world. Getting Linux and open-source programs and operating systems on all the computers and servers in every public library all around the world is a good start to getting public libraries into full citizenship into the open source world. Pushing for the use of TOR, HTTPS Everywhere, ad blockers like uBlock, NoScript, and other add-ons and privacy protection measures in your public libraries is a good start to getting public libraries into full citizenship into the open source world. Advocating with ideas like Reset The Net is a good start to getting the public library and community to think heavily about systems, software, and privacy. These are admirable goals, and if that's where your talents and advocacy lies, then we're more than happy to have you pushing us in that direction. If you want to code up the new killer app for libraries, to make our systems and technology run better, and to give us software options to use that are free, open source, easily extensible (for a given value of "easy"), and have a structure in place to support us and train us on the open source software we have, we'll happily have you.

We need more than just technology, though. Even if we are freed of proprietary technology to the nth degree possible, we still have institutional structures, policies, and procedures that need to be opened up and examined. Many public libraries still use the Dewey Decimal System, and pay the proprietary fee to OCLC for it, even though Dewey is awful in so many ways, because it's a fairly easy system to implement, with a regular method of finding and classifying items under its purview. The alternatives are things like BISAC (which is how bookstores lay out their wares), which groups things in similar categories close to each other, but doesn't necessarily make it easy to find groups of materials on one specific subject without browsing the general area they're housed in, or the Library of Congress system, which has become the go-to system for academic libraries due to its infinite extensibility, but is an ad-hoc system at best, which can result in the problem of like things not being near like things, making it less likely for a researcher to find all the possible relevant materials on their subject. Plus, LoC is expansive - to cover all the possibilities would need a space the size of most academic libraries.

It would be lovely if there was an Open Classification Standard for all forms of materials, based in open-source, freely-available ideas like FRBR and FRAD, using an open and freely available standard to generate machine-readable records, and, most importantly, that makes freely available the process by which a material receives its classification. There was an attempt to start with this, the Open Shelves Classification, although it appears to have died down in 2009. Still, with sufficient people, and especially those with experience working on community-driven projects, the pieces of the first project could be revived and used, or their remains harvested for a new effort. It will take a big group to handle all of the moving parts involved, from developing the classification rules and symbols, the documentation that would accompany those rules and symbols, the procedures for classifying, the structure of a compliant record, the underlying philosophy, and to bring the idea into existence and promote it to libraries of all types. All of these goals would work best if undertaken in conjunction with libraries and librarians, with the ultimate end goal of a finished classification system freely available to all, made by an open-source community. Organizers of big projects can contribute their expertise in getting deliverables and managing lots of people, enthusiasts can draw new people in, keep the morale of those working on the project high, and run Kickstarters for funding. Coders and machine thinkers can help structure the system to be logically consistent and understandable to both machines and humans.

The benefits of a big project like this are immense. A public library can save a lot of money if they don't have to pay for the seats to Windows, the seats to OCLC, and the seats to the organizations in charge of the RDA Toolkit. Those building and classifying their own collections and libraries can create records that could be freely shared, and programs that could search such shared collections and coordinate their lending and use. The system itself could adapt and extend, so as not to get caught in a situation where an entire classification level is functionally dedicated to Christianity, with a very small element for non-Christians to live in, or to be able to redefine and rework itself so that any artifacts of a particular time's thinking can be smoothed out and refactored to match the mindset of the future. It would be the work of a lifetime – maybe several lifetimes, but the librarians and communities of the future would thank you profusely for giving it to them. De-coupling the institution of the public library from the for-profit companies that hold the keys to various systems will help the public library stay strong and able to adapt to the needs of the future.

We also need people who are skilled with privacy and security issues to help us stay informed about the latest ways that governments and private corporations collect and mine data on our daily activities. We need information about methods that have been developed to obfuscate, confuse, or prevent the disclosure of our personal data to those entities. Much of this will be software-focused, because we do most of our disclosures on-line these days, but we also need people who can teach us how to spot social engineering, help library administrators and boards write and enforce policies that provide maximum protection of our members and a smooth experience with the library, and help all people fight for their rights to own digital things, rather than just having licenses to use them. We need people who can help us translate EULAs into human, who can show us how to spot surveillance cameras, how to maximize the likelihood that the police will not attack us for peaceful protest, and how to effectively make changes in our government when it does things in our name that we don't approve of. An open-source library can house all of these things and more, and fiercely advocates on behalf of its community against those who would take away its fundamental freedoms.

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.

The Library Can Be An Open-Source Institution

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.

The public library can be an open source institution. But we need your help.


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