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[aif] Re-imagining public libraries

I’m at an early Sunday morning (7:45am) session on re-imagining libraries with John Palfrey of the DPLA, Brian Bannon (Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library), and Tessie Guillermo (Zero Divide) . It’s moderated by Sommer Mathis (editor of My seat-mate tells me that many of the people here are from the local library and its board.The audience is overwhelmingly female.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

SM: Libraries are being more used even though people can download books. Are libraries shifting away from being book collections to becoming community centers?

BB: Our missions are so much bigger than our traditional format for distributing knowledge. Over the past 144 years of Chicago Library’s history, we’ve been innovating all along. How many 144-year-old institations are experiencing record-breaking use?

TG: I was on the Aspen Institute’s sessions on libraries that wrote a report around three pillars of libraries: People, place and platform. Platforms are emerging now. They’re gathering up networks of people that can join together to continue to add value.

JP: I agree with Brian’s historical take and Tessie’s theoretical. I’m not as sanguine, though. Libraries are more important in digital age, but support for libraries could erode. Turning into community centers is risky for libraries. A community center is an open space that can be anything, but libraries are specific: in access to knowledge, in what immigrants need to find their way into a new country, to people seeking jobs [and more]. And all these are bound to the specifics of the community.

BB: When I think of community space, we’re Chicago’s largest provider of access to open, free technology, helping new economies, etc., but we do it through the lens of the library. It starts with the idea that everyone should have free and open acess to the leading ideas of the day. We think about our communities and how we can support these aspirations in very specific ways.

TG: Libraries are central to ideas that are shared across communities. We work with Web Junction as a content pusher to libraries around the enrolment of people in the Affordable Care Act. First, people need to enroll and can go to the library for the computer access. They need insurance literacy. Once you choose your plan and see a doctor, you might find out about a health problem, and you can come back to the library to get info curated for you, and then find out where to get community services. All at the library.

JP: Libraries should be the center of communities, but not be community centers.

BB: People are reading more today and in lots of different formats, and libraries have been great conveners of those conversations. On the other side, as the world of information changes, we’ve been experimenting with learning through experience. We wanted to explore the importance of manufacturing to the city. We opened up a lab that exposed people to ideas that would have been hard to understand simply through print.

JP: I saw your awesome innovation lab. Will you have 3D printers in there perpetually or always have the latest tech?

BB: It was supposed to be a 6 month experiment that’s been extended. We do not believe that Chicago Public Library [CPL] should be the city’s hub for 3D printing. We’re now starting to do experiments in data visualization to help people understand Big Data.

TG: It’s hard to talk about the future of libraries without talking about what places in the future will be like. Zoos, museums, etc., are all changing. There will be a lot of experimentation about how residents and community members organize themselves. At yesterday’s Market Future there was a lot of joking about librarians and the sense was that you can only get recommendations through algorithms. [Ack. That was my session. See this Atlantic post, and my comment there..]

Q: Atlanta libraries are helping people complete GEDs and LA libraries are going one step further and are granting HS diplomas. What innovating programming are you hearing about?

JP: Libraries helping people complete GEDs makes total sense. I like the model where libraries are connecting to learning — connected learning like at CPL. A lot of the learning that kids do is interstitial on mobile devices, and libraries can help with that. Hybrid spaces that connect what’s going on online to the real world is a great model.

TG: The use of libraries is increasing but not always the funding. Libraries have to find new sources of revenue…

SM: … not just revenues but being able to quantify the vaue they bring. JP: CPL has led in this.

BB: We worked with Mission Measurements to do that. We looked at the core mission of the library. We’re about supporting democracy but also helping to make our city competitive. So we looked at how we’re supporting the local economy.

BB: We don’t always recognize that there’s a large portion of the world, and parts of Chicago, where people have limited or no access to tech. So we are experimenting with ways to bring the Internet home. We’re launching a program that will let you checkout laptops and a hotspot. But that’s less about the tech than about the support to understand what programs are out there to sustain it and to gain the skills they need.

Q: Both CPL and NYPL won the Knight News Challenge to enable them to do this.

BB: We’ll be lending them for a three week term. NYPL is lending for months. It’s an experiment. But it’s not just about shiny objects. CPL has been acknowledged for experiments, for R&D. The buzz is important to elevating your brand.

JP: There will have to be trade-offs. Maybe libraries will have to spend less on books, on the marginal acquisitions, in order to support these hardware lending programs. That’s controversial but we have to talk about the trade-offs.

BB: Our model for sharing knowledge is changing dramatically because of the law. Our ability to lend physical books vs. digital materials …

JP: In the physical realm we have the right of first sale that lets you do whatever you want with a book, including resell it or lend it. But for digital there’s no first sale. Libraries acquire the digital under a contract that may limit the number of lends. Libraries are in a less good position with e-works.

TG: I’m not in the library world, but maybe librarians become facilitators of networked learning. People are becoming networked through their library cards, which becomes a platform for creating and curating knowledge that’s shared across the library system. If you create a platform where card holders in the virtual space are able to come together to say, e.g., that there are transportation issues in the city that need solving, the librarian can facilitate the coming together of that conversation. The library can be a link to other institutions.

BB: Librarians are moving away from being the experts in finding stuff (research librarians excepted) and becoming more facilitators.

SM: What about curation? Is that more the job of the librarian than ever?

BB: In the traditional sense, no. Curating programs, etc.: yes.

SM: When you were in SF, you were involved in the renovation of 24 neighborhood libraries. What are the challenges?

BB: Part of it is flexibility. We renovated beautiful Carnegie libaries, but they’re not well designed for the modern flow. As the environment changes, so will the spaces. So we were concerned with designing both for today’s needs and for the future. In Chicago we’re designing spaces to support simultaneous activities. E.g., many people using our libraries are coming because they’re a single person running their own busines out of the library. How do we support that? And we have huge usage by families and children, so we’re need to support that as well. So we’re trying to design spaces that support creative play.

TG: In one instance, a yong parent kept hearing people saying they were going to the library. She was curious. It turns out that the local library has lots of family spaces, not little chairs and little books and someone reading to a group. Rather, it’s an extension of the neighborhood. She’s learning parenting and her children are learning how to play together.

JP: In St. Paul they sent up a library space right off a basketball court. I think that’s a great idea.

JP: I was director of Harvard Law Library [Disclosure: where he was my boss] which had a reading room the size of a football stadium that was always filled, but I never saw a kid take a book off a shelf. They were there to study. They have good wifi in the dorms. There’s something about coming to a common space, with librarians there who could help them if they got in trouble. But they’re there using digital materials. We need to figure out how the physical and digital coalesce, but mainly we need to have to figure out how to build collaborative spaces. Boston Public Library is renovating the historic Johnson Building. They’re putting the teens and tweens on the second floor to make the space attractive to them but also to keep them a bit out of the way.

TG: We work with a teen center in the East Bay area of SF. When you walk into the teen center the first thing you see is the library within the center — the libraries services are embedded in the space that they think of as their space.

Q: [Fred Kent, project for Public Spaces] Different African cultures are coming into Winnipeg. They put an African market outside the library. Richmond BC had to move out of their library into a large Wal-mart-like space along with other services. In Perth, the state library took all the library materials off the ground floor and put in cultural activities. The main library Houston is sponsoring an activitation event with SW Airlines. Libraries could become an integral part of the community services. The future of libraries may not be in their own buildings . The architecture of libraries may be very different.

JP: Yes. E.g., the basketball court example.

Q: I hear about the bond problems in Chicago. I don’t hear that in your comments, Brian.

BB: Chicago has been struggling financially and hopefully is coming out of it. CPL saw significant reductions in 2009 and 2011, resulting in a reduction in hours. We’ve brought many of those hours back through a restructuring. It costs about $100M to run the library, but it costs $6B to run the schools. We’re a tiny piece. That tiny investment in libraries as community anchors and for after-school learning has been an important argument for keeping funding in place. Our collections budget is a little less than what we had in SF and we’re three times the size. So, we definitely have issues.

JP But you’re a cheap date. Our high school costs $100M to run and you’re running the entire library system on that.

Q: The Koolhaus-designed library in Seattle has the problem of being filled with homeless people. They’ve thought about relegating a space with showers and bathrooms and washing machines within the library. WDYT?

BB: Homelessness is part of the urban challenge. It’s important that we see libraries as public spaces open to all regardless of their background. We should not create rules to encourage some and discourage others. In SF we experimented with bringing in people to work with the homeless on finding services that can help them. So rather than creating a shelter within the library, I’d rather that we become a resource helping people to find resources.

Q: How can we make these presidential libraries less a monument and more a way to engage the populace?

BB: Presidential libraries are called libraries, but I’m very excited about the prospect of the Obama library aspiring to being a place to learn about democracy and see it in action. I think it’d be great if it happened in an urban space. We’ve been talking with all three organizations trying to bring the Obama Library to Chicago about what role the public library might play.

TG: It’s an opportunity to think about this as being more of a digital, virtual library. The discussion of democracy should not be confined to one physical place.

JP: I’d argue strongly for the blended approach especially with this president. His election combined beautifully the digital with knocking on doors. Also, the DPLA attempts to build a national digital library, backed by National Archives and the Smithsonian among others. We could do something incredibly cool by connecting the digital and the physical.

Q: In tough budgetary times how are acquisitions affected and how is that being used to shape publishers’ behaviors?

BB: Patron driven acquisitions has us buying books when users want them. The question of publishers is tough. Each library on its own doesn’t have much power. Some big city libraries have cut their own deals. We want to make materials available and also for the publishers to be successful.

JP: We haven’t talked here about the role libraries play in preserving knowledge. If all you were to do is provide what people want at that moment, you’d lose. Patron driven acquisition is a good idea in some respect, and libraires and puslihers should be making common cause, but we also should recall that publishers go out of business — major publishers two or three times came to Harvard Law Library asking for copies of their books so they could digitize them; they didn’t have copies.

TG: That’s where you have to be careful about these decisions made by the analytics of usage.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog ( He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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