In 2007-2008 I worked on a public library service model project called the Library Outpost.
The project anticipated the mass move from print information to electronic information that has become a vivid reality as Amazon reports that it now sells more electronic books than physical books. The Outpost is a digital hub, offering a public window to the expanding universe of books, music, video, and other media available online. Librarians are there acting as guides to shape that window with the library patrons. The Outpost doesn’t seek to replace the libraries we have now, the whole space is meant to function as a different type of service within the full suite of services offered by a library system as a whole. It is a small, flexible storefront library facility where the only physical collection is books that are requested for delivery and pickup online. This frees up floorspace for co-creative activities like lectures, exhibits, classes, media creation, and community activities of all sorts.
I’ve been revisiting the Library Outpost service model recently for two reasons.
The first is the many engaging conversations about a Digital Public Library of America. If in fact a DPLA is realized, it will strengthen the case to deconstruct existing library services and offer different kinds of information access in different places. The DPLA’s clean slate approach has the potential to connect and magnify the success and the considerable digital content already offered by projects like the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, or the American Memory project. The public good that could come of making convenient, customizable access to all of this information (and more) is mind boggling. If this happens, DPLA content might eventually become a significant amount of all of the material a library offers, and the only thing that will differentiate a good library from a bad one will be how well the librarians design localized context for the electronic content. Every year libraries invest more and more of their scarce resources in electronic content. Eventually, libraries will follow Amazon’s lead and we will ‘circulate’ more electronic content than physical books. The question we need to be asking in light of these projections is not only whether the Carnegie building from 1895 is still a practical singular means of service delivery, it is also whether the Koolhaas building from 2004 remains a practical singular means of service delivery. A Library Outpost is the ideal physical world service point for a Digital Public Library of America.
The second is the forthcoming RFP from IMLS and the MacArthur Foundation for eligible libraries and museums to create Learning Labs in the likeness of the successful YouMedia project in Chicago. Thirty of these YouMedia style Learning Labs will be built in libraries and museums across the country. A description of YouMedia in their words, “High school age teens engaging with YOUmedia can access thousands of books, over 100 laptop and desktop computers, and a variety of media creation tools and software, all of which allow them to stretch their imaginations and their digital media skills. By working both in teams and individually, teens have an opportunity to engage in projects that promote critical thinking, creativity, and skill-building.” I’ve visited the space and can attest to the fact it is dynamic, exciting, and well used. The YouMedia library space is not a singular means of service delivery at Chicago Public Library, instead it is a node in a network of differentiated library services. I’d argue that while a Learning Lab in a few thousand square feet of an existing library building works, it would be even more interesting to open it as a separate storefront in a busy downtown area that is convenient for teens to access. A Learning Lab is no different from a Library Outpost designed specifically for a teen audience.
A few things are certain. Libraries cannot continue to deliver all of their services well with only one type of facility. Times have changed. The demands and nature of electronic content support an argument for Library Outposts as the ideal public space to interact with digital libraries. The constraints and costs associated with the transport and storage of print materials support an argument for giant, warehoused, browseable print collections: self service Costcos and Home Depots that serve as central distribution centers. Finally, we need to maintain and support the libraries we have now that meet elements of both these needs. I’m not saying that they are useless, I’m saying they are insufficient and unwieldy. Make no mistake though: beyond the surface, there is not as much difference between the Carnegie building and the Koolhaas building as one might think.