On Libraries

Free To All

From the windows of my office in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I enjoy an excellent view of the main branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library. Every morning, in the minutes before opening at 10AM, people start congregating outside. It’s been instructive, over the years, to watch the patrons going in and out. There are parents and infants and toddlers, there are young students and older folks, there are people who appear to be poor and homeless, and there are people who drive up in expensive cars and expensive clothing and dash in and out with armfuls of books. In short, the full spectrum of people or all ages and classes, coming and going in steady streams during open hours without a break.

Also instructive are the days when the branch is closed, and the frustrated or saddened looks of the folks walking up to the doors and finding them locked.

It is clear that our library is very well used, from which one can infer that it is very useful.

Like many (but certainly not all) people, the vast majority of my interaction with written language has migrated to the online or digital format. As such, I have often pondered about the continuing relevance of libraries as literacy and knowledge move from the analog, printed word on paper to the digital, illuminated pixels on a screen.

So, it was with great pleasure that I encountered (online), and then purchased (and downloaded onto my Kindle), BiblioTech. Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey

The author is founding Chairperson of the Digital Public Library of America, current Chairperson of the  Knight Foundation as well as Head of School at Phillips Academy, Andover. While not himself a librarian, his resume nonetheless amply demonstrates his credentials to explore the topic of his book.

The book itself is informative and educational, well written and well organized. Palfrey relates the history of libraries in America and introduces us to a large number of libraries and librarians, using their stories to illuminate the points being made in the book’s 10 chapters. As an author, Palfrey writes with warmth, and the excitement and passion felt by him over the subject matter communicate to the reader.

Palfrey begins with the story of Joshua Bates, who in 1852 was the driving force for the City of Boston to establish a major public library, the first in the world. The Boston Public Library, according to Bates’ direction, was to be “free to all”. Palfrey continues with a summary of how libraries came to spread across the country, up to the present, and enumerates the challenges faced by libraries and librarians to remain relevant as the world evolves beyond the need for repositories of information stored as books printed on paper in the traditional codex.

In subsequent chapters, he makes his central assertion that public libraries are necessary more than ever, supporting this with data about how patrons use libraries and examples of how different local public libraries in different cities in the US are experimenting with new ways of meeting the needs of their patrons.

Throughout, Palfrey returns to central themes emphasizing the value libraries bring to communities:

  • Libraries are essential to democracy, as a guarantor of universal access to information and knowledge, free to all.
  • Libraries are necessary for the archiving and preservation of  knowledge.
  • Librarians are important resources in helping to index, preserve, archive and guide patrons, especially given the ever expanding amount of information and knowledge being generated in an ever expanding variety of formats.
  • Librarians are on the forefront of freedom of information and privacy related civil rights issues.
  • Libraries are important public “third spaces”, literally a ubiquitous public place one can be which is not home or work, or home or school.

Also briefly mentioned by Palfrey is that urban public libraries become de facto “day shelters” for the homeless. This is certainly true in Santa Cruz, and it can be a significant challenge to librarians. That this is not discussed further, that libraries are not “third places” but “first places” for a significant number of people who have nowhere else to go, is a minor omission in his otherwise excellent book but worth noting. 

Palfrey concludes with a 10 step path forward for communities, libraries and librarians, important among them:

  • Libraries need to move from being storehouses to being platforms
  • Libraries and librarians need to collaborate and network
  • Librarians and the various elements of the publishing and creative industry need to work out a legal framework for the continuing access to knowledge and information, into the digital age
  • Librarians need to work with technologists to build a shared, open, digital infrastructure for knowledge and information storage, indexing and archiving
  • Communities need to reinvest, significantly, in their libraries.

Most of his prescription smacks of common sense in an age of ever dwindling budgets and the need to continue, at least for now, to accommodate knowledge and information printed on paper while also providing free access to the burgeoning amount of content in digital formats.

His call for libraries to update their role to that of “platform” echoes advocates in other areas such as the Gov 2.0 movement, led by organizations like Code For America and individuals like Tim O’Reilly. The transition from storehouse to platform is a familiar one here in Santa Cruz. The director of our local museum here in Santa Cruz, Nina Simon, is a leading firebrand in the global Museum 2.0 movement and her blog is an excellent exploration of the platform concept in action.

Treating a library or a museum or a school or a government as a platform means to make the resources and functions directly available to the public through some open, hackable, mashable, interface. For libraries, at least, that interface can exist in space (accessing a physical object at a library) or in the cloud (web searching through a digital collection). Libraries require physical and virtual space and human staff. The staff need to be adept at all the necessary tools and resources available to them in their physical and virtual work place.

Perhaps most importantly,  librarians (and museum directors and government workers and educators) need to extend or modify their role of gatekeeper or curator to include more active collaboration with the people who utilize the functions and resources of the institution, to make the platform better address the needs of its users.

Platform interfaces work both ways. This is to say that patrons of libraries are not only consumers or information and knowledge, as noted by Palfrey, they are also producers and creators or information and knowledge. This is especially true with the advent of the Internet and the low cost and availability of tools to produce digital content.

The tech explosion of the 80’s and 90’s in which cheap computers, the Internet and cellular phone technology transformed how people interact with each other and with their institutions, has required  institutions to evolve in an effort to remain relevant, sometimes more quickly than is comfortable. While it may be true that access to services and resources has changed in ways which were unimaginable even 10 years ago, the essential mission of public libraries, to make information, knowledge and culture available, free to all, has not.

John Palfrey has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the importance of public libraries to healthy 21st century democracies, the challenges they face and a path forward. His book should be on the bookshelf, or computer, or mobile device, of anyone interested in how civic and cultural institutions are adapting to meet the needs of their communities in the digital age.

Palfrey, John (2015). BiblioTech. Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. 281 pages. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465042999.

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