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The role of the 21st-century library in the digital era is built on its three key assets: people, place and platform.

The library as people reflects the shift away from building collections to building human capital, relationships and knowledge networks in the community. People are at the center of the library’s mission to inspire and cultivate learning, advance knowledge and nurture and strengthen communities. While there are thousands of stories in the public library, the ones that matter most come with the people who use the library.
The public library comes alive when it is teeming with people from all walks of life:[16]

  • PARENTS reading with their children in colorful, comfortable chairs
  • TEENS learning how to write code for a new video game in a noisy learning lab
  • STUDENTS meeting in a library classroom for group discussion as part of an online high school course
  • JOB SEEKERS working on résumés in career centers, with guidance from a business librarian
  • ENTREPRENEURS preparing presentations in coworking spaces, using the library-provided Wi-Fi and creating new products in maker spaces
  • IMMIGRANTS learning English in classes and improving their job-seeking skills with the help of community mentors
  • RETIREES using new online tools to create digital scrapbooks for their grandchildren
  • AUTHORS publishing books on new library publishing platforms

In this people-driven environment, skilled librarians help people navigate new technology, manage vast amounts of data and meet their information needs. With the resources and know-how to deliver individualized learning and social experiences, the public library delivers a high-touch participatory experience to support personal goals. Library staffs anticipate individual and community needs and connect people to available resources, both locally and globally.

As the library’s roles change and expand, library staff have refined and broadened their skills to meet new needs and define the library’s continuing value to the community. They serve many roles, as coaches, mentors, facilitators and teachers more than as sources of information. Measuring outcomes is more important than measuring outputs. An intelligent community, not large circulation numbers, is the primary library goal.

Andrew Sliwinski, co-founder and chief maker at, addresses the need for new competencies and skills within libraries:

“Continuously extending the definition of the librarian is neither sustainable nor really in the long-term interest of the institution. Rather, specialization is needed with a focus on maximizing the ability for the human capital within the library, which is one of its largest resources, to engage with patrons. It is through this engagement that the values and the assets within each library can be most fully realized and leveraged by society.”

Domain expertise is one of the new scarcities in a world otherwise overflowing with information. How does a library achieve such specialization without just hiring new librarians? How does a library get more librarians engaging with more people? In part, by leveraging its infrastructure to allow for this domain expertise to be shared outward, widely, from urban to rural and to draw from the expertise in the community.

Beth Jefferson, president and CEO of Bibliocommons, says a common descriptor given to librarians in the new information marketplace is “guides.” But there is simply too much information for that to be a realistic goal, she says, and while collecting and mining data might be useful, “you need tons of data and the smarts to make sense of it.”

The better response, she says, is to talk of librarians as “curators” for their communities, and communities themselves as curators. The skill set libraries need is domain expertise, and for that libraries need to draw on the people in their communities to help design what Jefferson calls “collaborative filters” designed with the public interest in mind. Commercial search engines are great, but “their algorithms are designed with a for-profit point of view. Libraries are in a different business. Curation in the public interest is distinctly missing.”

Building strong relationships with those who are providing content is an important goal of the people-focused public library. This includes not only publishers but also journalists, filmmakers, artists and information workers. Publishers and libraries have had a healthy relationship for a long time despite more recent controversies over e-book access and pricing. Digital technologies have disrupted the traditional publishing/library supply chain. Consequently, libraries need to be sensitive to and engaged with the ecosystem that produces the content that gets into libraries, whether user-generated or professionally created content. This includes a recognition that an increasing amount of content produced is in new forms, especially large amounts of visual content, including video, photographs, maps and other forms of digitized and visualized data.

Today’s library is both a physical and virtual place, but it continues to be the physical presence of the library that anchors it most firmly in the community. Research and experience show that geography and place still matter.[17] The Pew Research Center’s survey on library usage found that a large proportion of Americans, even those who seldom visit a library, consider libraries important institutions in their geographic communities and believe that their communities would suffer a loss if the library closed.[18]

In an increasingly virtual world, physical library places are community assets. They:

  • ESTABLISH PERSONAL CONNECTIONS that help define community needs and interests
  • PROVIDE AN ANCHOR for economic development and neighborhood revitalization
  • STRENGTHEN COMMUNITY IDENTITY in ways that yield significant return on investment, including drawing people together for diverse purposes
  • PROVIDE A SAFE AND TRUSTED LOCATION for community services such as health clinics, emergency response centers, small business incubators, workforce development centers and immigrant resource centers
  • CREATE CONNECTING PLACES in new locations that draw people together—shopping malls, big box stores, airports and mobile buses

PUBLIC LIBRARY USERS AND PROPONENTS ARE NOT A NICHE GROUP[19] “Libraries have always been an economic driver of communities,” says Robert Harrison, city administrator of Issaquah, Washington. “Libraries are like Starbucks without the coffee: an important place to build social connections. Anyone can use it.”

The physical library will become less about citizens checking out books and more about citizens engaging in the business of making their personal and civic identities. As more information moves to digital formats, public libraries will hold less material locally in their physical collections. Library users will be able to access information digitally wherever it resides through library networks. While traditional computer work stations remain important and in demand, personal or shared mobile devices that provide easy connections to library Wi-Fi and high-speed broadband networks are becoming a dominant form of connection. The reduction in physical materials, greater customer mobility and the desire for more collaboration and creation are changing the nature of the public library’s physical space.[20]

The physical library must undergo a transition that embraces the openness and flexibility needed to thrive in a world of constant change. Central to this flexibility is creating spaces that can adapt to the changing operational models of libraries.

In an article for Library Journal, architect Peter Gisolfi contrasts “the ways we were” in the 20th century model—quiet, large areas of stacks and extensive collections of printed material, an imposing circulation desk, modest community room—with emerging trends that recognize varied and new uses. These trends range from greater transparency among spaces, larger spaces for children and teens, meeting and activity rooms of different sizes to accommodate public events and performances or coworking and collaboration and technology-centric spaces.

Gisolfi advises, “Whether you build a new library or transform an existing one, do not build the best library of the previous century. Create an environment that facilitates new patterns of interacting, learning and accessing information and is sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes that inevitably will come.”[21]

The public library remains a destination for many users, serving many purposes—personal quiet time for reading, research or homework; supervised afterschool activities until parents get home from work; public events and performances; innovation labs, hacker and maker spaces; and coworking and collaboration spaces.

Many libraries are creating spaces that are rich with tools and technologies that inspire and facilitate learning, discovery and creation and where experimentation is encouraged with trained library staff and community mentors. People and technology meet at the library. But as a learning place, the library becomes more than a destination, a term that suggests an end or arrival point. Instead, the library becomes a way station on the learning journey, a place that one passes through on the way to some other destination. This shift in role will impact the physical space of the library, the ways in which people interact with it and the types of services provided there.

In addition to being a physical space, the library in the digital age is a virtual space accessible from anywhere 24/7.

Websites, online discussion groups, classes, book clubs and library-hosted Wi-Fi hotspots are examples of the growing community presence of the always-open virtual library.

The library as it exists within virtual space must be considered as a wholly independent but highly integrated experience; that is, the library’s virtual presence must be as engaging as its physical space and fully serve the library’s mission built around equitable access, learning and civic development. Platforms must be conceived that address not only the operational and practical benefits of libraries but also benefits that are emotional and highly social.

This requires thinking beyond the transaction that characterizes many online library experiences today. The public library should define what makes a great online public space. Yet there are hurdles to developing the online library experience beyond simple transactions and information retrieval, including the expertise to do so, insufficient financial and technical resources and the lack of adequate broadband capacity and digital literacy skills in many areas.

Library Wi-Fi in disadvantaged neighborhoods may address an issue that is echoed in the Pew Research Center’s library user topology survey, From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and Beyond, which found higher rates of library use among the wealthier and better-educated members of the community and comparatively lower rates of library use in poorer and less-educated communities.[22] Easily accessible Wi-Fi may provide the spark needed to encourage residents to come into the physical library and explore the programs, workshops and services it has to offer.

In a new twist on providing Wi-Fi, the New York Public Library and Chicago Public Library have launched programs that provide take-home Internet access (Wi-Fi “hotspots”) and digital training for residents in neighborhoods where digital access is low.

“From day one, we have worked to increase Internet connectivity and knowledge for our residents because today’s digital skills are 21st-century workforce skills,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the time Chicago’s “Internet to Go” program was announced.[25]

In keeping with the public library’s focus on people, Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon said during a panel discussion on the future of libraries at the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival that the program “is less about the technology, more about the support of the individual, the family and the community.”[26]

A great library platform is a “third place”—an interactive entity that can facilitate people operating individually or in groups.


The transformations of the digital age enable individuals and communities to create their own learning and knowledge. To that end, libraries become platforms—bases on which individuals and communities create services, data and tools that benefit the community.[27] They allow for innovation that the platform creators cannot anticipate. Users may “customize” the platform and adapt its resources to their individual needs, whatever those needs may be. The library as community learning platform is the innovative proposition of the public library in the digital age.

According to David Weinberger of Harvard University, the library platform can be thought of “as an infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town, or the classrooms and yards of a university. Think of the library as coextensive with the geographic area that it serves, like a canopy, or as we say these days, like a cloud.”[28]

A great library platform is a “third place”—an interactive entity that can facilitate many people operating individually or in groups. The library platform supports the learning needs and goals of the community. To accomplish this, libraries embody the disposition of the entrepreneurial learner: seizing opportunities wherever they may exist, engaging others in the process. The library can then curate and archive the solutions created for sharing and future use. As a platform, the library promotes development in the community and society by identifying and filling gaps in community services including early-childhood education, lifelong learning, technology literacy and e-government.[29] The library as platform makes the library a participatory enterprise.

One distinguishing feature of the library as platform is that it is trusted to be objective and operate in the interests of its users. This is in contrast to commercial platforms that blur the line between user and commercial interests. In addition, the library is uncompromisingly free of charge. It differentiates itself from other “free” services by selling no ads and honoring the privacy of its users. Users may “opt in” to features that involve data sharing with third parties, possibly receiving extra benefits when they enter that bargain.

At the same time, as a platform, the library exploits its assets—content, human capital and expertise. It draws on those assets for community engagement and allows people to contribute their knowledge and experiences to those assets. The library as platform creates community dialogue that makes way for new expertise and creates social knowledge.

The library as platform sees itself as LaaS–“library as a service.” Within the building itself, it starts with the biggest, fattest, most secure pipe that is possible, abundant Wi-Fi, devices for borrowing and a default embrace of new interface and display gadgets. Outside the physical library, it delivers these high-quality experiences on-demand to users wherever they may be and through whatever device they may use and for whatever purpose. Content may come from within the library’s own collections, from a national content platform or anywhere in the cloud.

The library as platform radically reshapes the library’s daily activities, shifting away from the old model of organizing and “lending” the world’s knowledge toward a new vision of the library as a central hub for learning and community connections. It shapes the fire hose of information from the community as content is digitized and as social media and other comment-surfacing technologies bring forth data and insight about users and the community. The library’s new activities include:

  • Bringing analytical understanding to disorganized and abundant streams of information
  • Connecting people seeking information to the resources, people or organizations that can provide it
  • Synthesizing, analyzing, storing and curating information for those who want to consult material in the future
  • Facilitating discovery and serendipitous encounters with information
  • Helping people solve local problems
  • Recruiting volunteers and specialists to participate in platform activities, especially by helping meet the needs of those querying the system
  • Performing information concierge services and access to government services that are not at times delivered well by existing government agencies

Today, most public libraries see their catalog as the platform. That will have to change as they collect data and deploy existing resources in new ways, develop new relationships and partnerships in the community, and restructure their spaces. To be successful, the library platform will require:

  • A DIFFERENT KIND OF ACCESS INFRASTRUCTURE, including a more robust identification system that protects individual privacy
  • A NEW DISTRIBUTION INFRASTRUCTURE than currently used by most libraries in order to get physical and digital material to users
  • MORE SOPHISTICATED ANALYTICS that will enable the library itself to become a “learning organization”
  • INTEROPERABILITY to enable scaling of the platform and facilitate innovation and competition

Part of the challenge ahead lies in the traditionally decentralized model of U.S. public libraries. In that model, every community library goes it alone. That will not work for the library as platform, which for reasons of cost and quality needs to be created on a larger scale.

Ideally, a digital public library model would have a single interface—or at most a few—that allows existing online library catalogs to be fully integrated with new ones. It will provide a single point of access to all titles, taking the burden of both technology and archiving off individual libraries. And in an information marketplace that includes behemoths like Amazon and Google, libraries need a platform robust enough to win what Reed Hundt, principal of REH Advisors and former chairman of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), calls “the competition of platforms.” “Right now Amazon offers a better online experience than a bookstore, and Netflix is better at streaming video, and that’s the competition for libraries,” says Hundt.

Unification—getting libraries to work together, to integrate their intellectual and capital resources—is a critical platform issue. Libraries have traditionally defined and designed the user experience. Platforms empower others to exercise their capabilities in creating services, data and tools. The library has to operate at scale and facilitate activities among users that the library alone cannot handle.

[16] In January 2013, the Center for an Urban Future released Branches of Opportunity, a report on how New York City’s public libraries have become a critical part of the city’s human capital system. This report provides an excellent overview of how public libraries serve the distinct needs of specific demographic groups and communities of interest. Center for an Urban Future, Branches of Opportunity, January 2013,
[17] Katherine Loflin, “Learning from Knight’s Soul of the Community, Leaning Toward the Future of Placemaking,” Project for Public Spaces, April 11, 2013,
[18] Kathryn Zickuhr, Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell and Maeve Duggan, How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities, Pew Research Center, December 11, 2013,
[19] Kathryn Zickuhr, Kristen Purcell And Lee Rainie, From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers-and beyond, Pew Research Internet Project, March 13, 2014,
[20] One widely praised vision of the physical library of the future was published in a paper by Denmark’s Royal School of Library and Information Science. This Danish model has four distinct but overlapping “spaces”: an inspiration space, a learning space, a meeting space and a performing space. Each of these embraces a different ethos: aesthetic experiences; access to information and knowledge; face-to-face encounters with others, both accidental and purposeful; creation encouraged by access to and instruction in the use of technological tools; and the ability to publish or distribute creative work. These spaces are not necessarily physically discrete but should together “support the library’s objectives in the knowledge and experience society…by incorporating them in the library’s architecture, design, services, programs and choice of partnerships.” Henrik Jochumsen, Casper Hvenegaard Rasmussen and Dorte Skot-Hansen, A New Model for the Public Library in the Knowledge and Experience Society, Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, Royal School of Library and Information Science,
[21] Peter Gisolfi, “UpClose: Designing 21st-Century Libraries | Library by Design,” Library Journal, June 16, 2014,
[22] Kathryn Zickuhr, Kristen Purcell and Lee Rainie, From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers-and Beyond, Pew Research Center, March 13, 2014,
[23] University of Maryland Information Policy and Access Center, Public Libraries & Digital Inclusion Issue Brief,
[24] John Horrigan, The Essentials of Connectivity, March 2014,
[25] Chicago Public Library, “Mayor Emanuel Announces Chicago Public Library Awarded Grant for Wi-Fi Hotspot Lending,” news release, June 23, 2014,
[26] The Public Library Reimagined, Aspen Ideas Festival, June 29, 2014,
[27] The term platform can have many meanings and associations. Here, we build from Marc Andreesen’s definition of a platform in the technical realm: “A ‘platform’ is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers—users—and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform’s original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.” (See for an archived copy of Andreesen’s original blog post from September 16, 2007.) In the context of the community, the salient aspect of the public library as platform is the ability of library users to customize the use of library tools and resources in unforeseen ways and the flexibility of the library as platform to accommodate and even embrace such new uses and enable library users to become creators and contributors to the body of knowledge made available by the library and its networks. The concept of a library as platform can be thought of in the context of the transformations of Facebook, Google and Amazon from providing services to offering platforms that users and app developers can build upon to create, share and achieve scale in the community. See, Andy Havens, “From Community to Technology…and Back Again,” Next Space, January 15, 2013,
[28] David Weinberger, ”Library as Platform,” Library Journal, September 4, 2012,
[29] One of the essential features of the public library’s character—its unique accessibility—is also one of its weaknesses: with limited resources, its communities pull it in multiple directions, but increasingly toward a “deficit model” in which its role is more social safety net than social change agent. The library of the future cannot think of itself primarily as a remedial institution that exists to fill social deficits—in education, in access to information in any form, in democracy, in literacy. Instead the public library must become a “sharing” institution that grows social capital by curating and sharing all the information to which it has access, including sources of information that lie in its own community. It is impossible to imagine the sharing library not also filling deficits, even if it does it in new ways. The Dialogue believes that among the library’s traditional core missions will always be to promote reading and literacy among both children and adults; to offer access to information at low cost, or to the user “free”; and to anchor communities. David Lankes, professor and Dean’s Scholar of the New Librarianship at Syracuse University, and one of the United States’ most visionary thinkers on the nature of libraries and their relationships with communities, names and addresses the “deficit model” debate very well on his blog. See, R. David Lankes, “Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries Are Obsolete,” Virtual Dave…Real Blog (blog), April 12, 2012,
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