Last night I dropped by the Centre For Social Innovation for what I thought would be a mayoral candidate promoting his candidacy.
It turned out instead to be an inspiring group discussion about the future of libraries, and though the candidate David Soknacki and his campaign manager did say a few words about the upcoming election, it was clear from the format of the event that it was genuinely about sourcing progressive ideas about the city.
They’re engaging in the political version of “customer development”—a startup methodology where you seek to improve your product by developing a better understanding of your customers.
In italics below is my summary of the general consensus from our small group discussion. I can’t take any credit for these ideas, because they bubbled up and were assembled by group commentary.
It’s not a technology problem.
Technology has come a long way since the first library loaned out its first book, and in some ways has made the traditional purpose of the library redundant. Libraries have traditionally been about borrowing books, but as information becomes digital the existing library infrastructure (for storing, tracking, and moving physical books) becomes irrelevant, how can the role of a library be re-imagined to suit the needs of the digital age?
If the purpose of a library can be re-imagined in light of advances in technology, then technology can serve to facilitate the purpose of the library and not detract from it.
It’s not a marketing problem. The answer is not for libraries to convince non-users to become users of the current system. The library should be adapted into being a modular platform that can be shaped and adapted to the actual needs of it’s local community. (Kinda like the public resource version of this phone)
Before the discussion began, the organizers showed a video of a young girl making an impassioned plea to Mayor Rob Ford to not close her local library branch in Scarborough, because she depends on its computers to access the internet and complete her homework.
Different neighbourhoods need different libraries.
One community might need more computer desks with internet access because people can’t afford it at home. It wouldn’t make as much sense to put a computer lab in branch of a more affluent community where people own multiple connected devices. Instead, they might prefer to use the library as a public space for events, or for young students to come study.
A library should therefore be designed as a fluid platform that can be adjusted to serve the specific public resource needs of the community supported by each branch.
Could some libraries be specialized?
One of the ideas I was most excited about was someone’s comment that built upon the idea of the modular community library to introduce themed libraries that sit on top of the community library network to act as specialized knowledge hubs.
Specialized libraries are already employed by universities, and allow for a greater depth of focus while removing the need for every library to carry an exhaustive selection of every genre. For example:
A tool library that also serves as a hub for education in the trades, DIY workshops for homeowners, and a place to host related meetup workshops.
A garden library focused on education about urban gardening, food & nutrition, and healthy living and eating. It might also feature a seed library.
A technology library dedicated to programming education and technology workshops that could also serve as a place for people to try out new technologies (like 3D printers) that they might not otherwise be exposed to.
You might say that people are already figuring these things out without the help of libraries, but that’s exactly the point. Independent of libaries, people have made their own decisions about how they want to engage with knowledge in the digital age. By enabling these activities, libraries will only make them more open and accessible to more people, and also cheaper to run.
The library thus retains its core purpose as a public service: to be a resource through which people can engage with knowledge, either digitally, or through a physical hub.