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The PLA Blog | Official Blog of the Public Library Association

On Monday I’ll be giving a brief talk and moderating a panel discussion at the Digital Library Federation Forum in Baltimore.  I’ll be speaking on “What A National Digital Library Means For Public Libraries”, and our panel will be answering questions on related topics.  Panelists include Michael Lascarides (NYPL), Toby Greenwalt (Skokie PL), and Jefferson Bailey (formerly Brooklyn PL, now at LC).  For those not able to attend, here’s a synopsis of what I’ll cover in my 20 minutes.  I’ll post slides afterward.

Because of my involvement with the Digital Public Library of America effort, I’ve put a lot of thought into what different realizations of such a huge project might mean for library patrons in San Jose, CA where I work for San Jose Public Library.  It’s really quite clear that the people of San Jose are embracing the shift from physical content to digital content; our eBook usage stats just keep going up and up.  It’s also quite clear that people *love* our library buildings; they are packed every day and our door count just keeps going up and up.  This seems hard to reconcile: if the library’s greatest value proposition is it’s collection of circulating books, yet more and more of our collections are leveraged on an iPad from the comfort of an armchair at home, why are the buildings so busy?

The truth is, people like to *go to the library*.  It’s a community space, where they attend programs, see friends, and feel comfortable.  You don’t need to buy a cup of coffee in order to use the bathroom, and nobody is going to yell at you if you sit around all day and read the magazines.  I watch people chill out with their iPads, reading, browsing, all while sitting in a group of giggling friends.  Public libraries are community spaces that are specifically set aside so that you can make yourself smarter in your leisure time.  That’s really the coolest thing ever; something a community can take pride in. The digital shift hasn’t pushed people away from libraries.  So far the addition of eBooks to our collections has just been a boom in activity.  So, enter the DPLA: a digital library mega-effort with an ambitious goal to make all of our rich cultural heritage available across the web.  How will that change the activities in library spaces in rural Texan towns or neighborhood libraries in San Jose?

I think that the DPLA is a great opportunity for libraries to shift their focus to supporting a different set of activities in our buildings, and public library’s already mild support of these activities is one reason that we haven’t seen people leave our buildings behind for the comfort of their armchair at home.  The activities I speak of are creation activities: the production of new knowledge for personal growth and sometimes even the public good.  The future of public libraries lies in supporting creative endeavors in their local community and empowering the patrons to contribute their creative work back to the community or to the whole world via the internet.  The traditional library is a read-only space, meant for the consumption of knowledge: by providing access to media, we enable patrons to read books, watch movies, or listen to music.  The library in the age of the internet is quite different: texts or books are now just as easy to write or edit as they are to read, movies are just as easy to mash up and edit as they are to watch, and music is just as easy to remix as it is to listen to it.  Of course its ‘just as easy’ if you have access to the tools and skills to do these things.  Herein lies the new role for public libraries: we need to be centers for knowledge production, not just knowledge consumption.  There is no other institution doing this work, and public libraries are best situated to fill the gap.

For this reason, a Digital Public Library of America stands to have great influence on public libraries if it successfully accomplishes this one thing.  It must support user generated content, and give patrons the opportunity to integrate and display their own contributions in the context of ‘trusted’ library content, and it has to make that experience fun and rewarding for the participants.  In addition, if the digital library is to support these kinds of community contributions, it also needs to provide some infrastructure, some means by which the content is digitized or uploaded or displayed.  The “if we build it they will come” digital library will not work, even if it is a successful realization of de-siloing library assets and metadata for exposure on the web (which, btw, is awesome).  The DPLA or any large public digital library effort needs a mechanism for contribution, and serious UX work making that contribution engaging.  I’m also talking about the DPLA creating a task force for proposing real solutions to public library technology budgets, and hiring and training staff who know how to use the technology.

I think the added value of user generated content is best illustrated through an example.  I loved the comment Martin Gomez, director of Los Angeles Public Library, made at the DPLA plenary meeting: “What’s in it for the KIDS?”  Here is one example of what could be in it for the kids.

One of our most popular programs at the San Jose Public Library is the “Battle of the Bands”.  What’s not to love?  It channels the rowdy, creative energy of teenagers in a safe space to express themselves and feel confident as producers of knowledge.  In less nerdy words: we support making them feel like rock stars.  The problem is that as cool as that may be, the library only assists these kids in a few small aspects of the creative process.  We could do much, much more to turn the Battle of the Bands into a rich, lasting learning experience for the participants, and a DPLA could support pieces of that.  Here’s how.

First, to play in a band you need access to instruments, analog or digital.  These are are the tools for knowledge production.  One library in East Palo Alto lends out guitars to patrons.  Or you may be familiar with other libraries, where they lend out power tools or digital cameras.

Next, participants might want to record this event.  Maybe they want to shoot a video, maybe they are just trying to capture audio.  There’s an opportunity to teach audio and video production here.

Finally, the fun part: sharing their creation with their friends, and publishing it for the whole world to see.  Of course great services exist to do that and there’s no point in trying to invent our own version of YouTube, but we don’t necessarily have any tools for those kids to put their newly shot music video into the context of rock n’ roll history via a national digital library that pulls together trusted content from museum, libraries, archives and historical societies around the country.  This is where the interoperability of the DPLA could be a game-changer for recreational learners of all types.  If the Battle of the Bands participants could build collections and connections between trusted sources and their own creative work, they’d be learning by using media.  So if our band were a goth band and they found images and videos of The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees from the 1980s, then drew connections to Edwardian couture and then perhaps some 19th century literature (you can tell I’m going out on a limb for this particular example) they could build their own little collection of these materials.  Then, perhaps they could connect their collection to another person’s steampunk band on the other side of the country, and discover that even though the old-timey steampunk music doesn’t sound like other music they are into, there’s a common love for 19th century literature.

The point is this: once more ground work is established, a Digital Public Library of America could facilitate any of these activities.  The final example describing curation-based learning is the most obvious touchpoint, while the other steps: lending tools like musical instruments or offering a studio environment for audio or video production may require a more indirect form of support, perhaps through architecture or a design pattern like librarylab.org.  Most importantly, I hope this example illustrates the changing nature of library spaces, and their continued relevance in their communities as programs like evolve into core activities: the bread and butter of 21st century library service.

Thanks for reading!  No guarantees this will be an exact transcript of the DLF presentation, I like to make that stuff up on the fly.

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