Visual notes by Jonny Goldstein
There’s really no better place for a group to discuss the future of public library facilities and services right now than the city of Philadelphia. With the potential closure of 11 Free Library of Philadelphia branches and mixed feelings in the community about whether those closures are a good choice, it is an excellent time to closely examine the role of the public library and how its physical locations and material collections can best serve the people. So on an icy Thursday, February 5th a room full of librarians, teachers, academics, technologists, designers, and community organizers came together for the Philadelphia Junto ‘Rethinking the Library’. In an open forum provided by P’unk Avenue, whose blog posts (1) and (2) were the impetus for this Junto, everyone got to speak their mind about what they believe the modern library should be.
It was a fun group of panelists. Sarah Murphy and Maria Falgoust are school librarians from the Browning School and St. Anns School, and are also the founders of the Desk Set. Jim Pecora is the Chief Technology Officer at the Philadelphia Free Library and was the kind of passionate, hands-on, man-of-many hats that you often find involved in public libraries. I had the opportunity to moderate the discussion, and I spoke about the Library Outpost as a way of diversifying the types of library service points within a larger system. The Library Outpost is a small, storefront space in a commercial area, business improvement district, or transportation hub with no local collection of library materials. The only items shelved in the space are materials that patrons requested online and are then delivered to the location for pickup. The Library Outpost removes the storage element from public space and frees up prime library space for programs, exhibitions, classes, movies, concerts, community meetings, serving coffee, and virtually any community-building, social capital-creating activity.
One issue that I insist upon speaking to in any “what is the library all about” conversation is helping people understand that the public library is NOT just all about books. This is a really difficult thing to understand for a lot of people, because in their minds libraries are synonymous with books. There have been plenty of market research studies that spell out loud and clear that the public perception of libraries is that they are buildings full of books. While providing access to books is ONE thing libraries have done and done well for a very long time, it really needs to be made clear that in a deeper way libraries are about informing democracy, providing equal access to information, inspiring lifelong learning, and promoting the idea that learning is a recreational activity. Books are a TOOL that libraries have used successfully to accomplish those goals over the last couple-hundred years. One of the wonderful things happening right now is that we have more and more different types of tools and media by which libraries can accomplish these goals. The reason libraries appear so challenged right now by giants like Amazon and Google in the book business is because we have failed in branding ourselves based on our core principles, instead we’ve branded ourselves around a tool by which we accomplish those principles. Not a good plan.
There was also a good bit of conversation about libraries as the only indoor public spaces in our communities, and what that means. Both Jim Pecora and a member of the library board from the Philadelphia Free Library testified to the fact that usage is up and that all of their buildings are busy as ever. The problem is that as libraries begin to use different kinds of tools to disseminate knowledge other than books, the facilities become increasingly unwieldy. Carnegie libraries do what they were built to do really well: they serve as browsable organized storage areas for printed matter. But now, as libraries are increasingly about conversation, community connections, and leveraging other types of social technologies to facilitate learning, these buildings are outmoded. Nobody wants to be rid of a beautiful historical landmark, but what replacement can be offered by a remarkably inagile public agency steeped in politics and beaurocracy? How can institutions like this become nimble? Can they?
One uplifting piece that host Geoff DiMasi of both Punkave and Indy Hall brought up was the kind of response this particular Junto had. Participants didn’t want to just talk about this subject matter, they were engaged and there is now this feeling of “what is the next step?” surrounding the discussion. If in fact library systems cannot become agile, how can they most efficiently partner with Coworking spaces or groups like Dave Egger’s 826NYC to define the future, meet in the middle, and eventually adopt best practices?
Thank you to everyone at that event for having me and for having such a positive, motivated attitude toward public libraries and their future. I’m quite aware that this blog post doesn’t even touch quite a few points that were made during the discussion, so I hope some of that will appear in the comments.