CHAPTER III - A Different Kind of Library
Why are we talking about a different kind of library? When I think of libraries the way I’ve learned about them over the last two years, they seem to be a 19th century concept with a 20th century structure and ill-equipped to deal with 21st century issues.
Reed Hundt, CEO, Coalition for Green Capitol
The prevailing view of the challenges and opportunities facing institutions in the digital age, including libraries, is through the lens of digital disruption. New technologies and the new business models that follow undercut the established value proposition of existing institutions, leaving them vulnerable to obsolescence or failure. If one’s understanding of the library’s value is based solely on “getting information” (in a traditional form like a book or through the latest digital technologies), then the long-term health of libraries appears to be at risk. Competitors with modern business models like Amazon and Google often do a better job of delivering information when and where it is needed. Headlines reinforce the aura of library vulnerability—“Are libraries still relevant?” “Do we still need libraries?” “Will libraries outlive books?”
An evolving vision of libraries grounded in community priorities and democratic values sees the library not as a victim of digital disruption, but as a platform for navigating and enhancing life in the exponential age. “Our vision of libraries is itself in a state of flux. Our priorities and values are actually stable,” said Brown.
In his book, BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, John Palfrey, Head of School at Phillips Academy and a member of the board of directors of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, raises the conversation surrounding libraries to a more constructive level. Palfrey writes:
“…the library as an institution has been fundamental to the success of our democracy. Libraries provide access to the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill our roles as active citizens. Libraries also function as essential equalizing institutions in our society. For as long as a library exists in most communities, staffed with trained librarians, it remains true that individuals’ access to our shared culture is not dictated by however much money they have.” (Palfrey, 2015, p. 9).
It is this uniquely democratic character and mission that provides the lens through which to consider the development of the library platform for innovation. But for libraries to succeed, they need to re-imagine what the problems are that they are trying to solve.
“We are a country of private wealth and public poverty,” said Reed Hundt, CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital. “I think libraries are at the cutting edge of the equality of wealth and education.”
“One thing that is really fascinating about libraries is that they are so widely distributed. Here you have this massive distribution network in an economic and social landscape of extreme concentration. Wouldn’t it be great if we could take this distribution network and have it be one that serves the purpose of proxy for innovation—a new business proposition?” asked Hundt. “It’s an environment of literacy and one of access and collaboration, one of extended broadband, having a number of public services. Instead of the MLS behind the desk, you would actually have many other people providing services in that same physical space. And so you’d think about that space very differently than the historic perception of libraries,” said Hundt.
Besides their wide distribution of physical infrastructure, public libraries bring other unique benefits as community innovation platforms. Libraries touch people throughout their entire lifetimes, from birth to old age. Libraries’ power comes from their bottom-up, grassroots organization. Libraries are adept at scaling diversity. In contrast to libraries, “digital is not good at scaling diversity,” said Jake Barton, Principal and Founder of Local Projects. Comparing libraries to Google and Facebook, Barton added, “the network of libraries could be the most diverse.”