The PLA Blog | Official Blog of the Public Library Association

This is an extended version of my post on Digital Book World,  ‘Steal This Idea’, and an outline for my upcoming talk at SXSW.

Frequently when people speak of ‘the future’, they speak of that which they believe to be inevitable. They take a determinist approach. They cite facts, figures, and statistics that back up their vision, be it bleak or blue-skied, and show you how x ,y ,and z will be totally different in 2020, 2030, or 2050. The audience is then left with a singular picture of what the world has in store for them. Usually this approach is bleak rather than bright blue and it paints a picture of an uncomfortable future; something scary, something disruptive, something negative. We’ve seen a lot of this predictive style coming from self-described futurists speaking about public libraries in the age of the internet and digital books, and I find it frustrating and unproductive. I’m here to offer you a positive spin on the future; I’d like to describe a future for public libraries that we could consciously aim for, steer toward, and build strategies to actually make happen. I’ll describe new services that would take significant investment to implement, and I hope readers and library supporters won’t be shy about the call for that investment.

In a sentence: Public libraries will have tremendous value and support in their communities if they strategically position themselves as community publishers. ‘Publisher’ certainly is a loaded word right now, as the publishing industry is currently victim to a lot of the same negative determinist futurecasting as public libraries, so let me describe what I mean by publishing here. As ‘community publishers’, I’m suggesting that public libraries can and should support the creative activities of residents by 1) providing access to equipment and expertise, 2) facilitating connections and conversations between those creative residents, and finally 3) serving as a distribution mechanism and access portal for much of the the work they create. This might mean assisting in the scanning and publishing of photographs from a patrons’ basement, offering basic recording facilities for local teens interested in making music, or the production and distribution of a local author’s novel. Here are the two components of a system that would truly reposition the public library as a local publisher.

The first piece is a design pattern for a media lab. Media labs are not uncommon at public libraries nowadays; many people have done great work in this area. All of these wonderful facilities and curricula considered, I’m most excited by librarylab.org because it is modular, portable, flexible, open source and creative commons licensed, all of which are values I believe to be important to promote and uphold in public libraries. There’s a tension between what it means to be local versus what it means to be web-scale, and there are advantages to both. The original vision for librarylab.org was connected to the Digital Public Library of America beta sprint; it was to be a networked physical architecture acting as a gateway for contribution to a national digital library. In that sense, it was a web-scale idea. At the same time, because the plans are open source and hackable, the various modules could be customized, tweaked, and branded for almost any imaginable local use. In that sense, it is a local concept. As public libraries move toward knowledge production as a core piece of their mission, I see great value in some agreement on standards, principles, and even talking points around these media lab type facilities, while never losing sight of the things that make every community unique. Currently, librarylab.org only exists as a set of conceptual drawings. If you are interested in supporting prototyping of the librarylab modules so that sound construction plans can be made available to all, contact the folks at Noll & Tam Architecture and Planning.

The second piece of this community publishing puzzle is a software platform for producing and publishing localized ‘ebooks’ and I intentionally use that term to describe a broad assortment of digital media. While a media lab largely supports the production of single-channel media, this platform is intended to work as an authoring tool to bring those pieces together into finished ‘works’. The best way to describe this is via a hypothetical use case.

Imagine that Jenny Jane in Anytown USA aspires to write a book. Via this platform, JJ could log on to her public library website and ‘create a project.’ Perhaps she’d log in from the comfort of her home, or on her mobile device from a park bench, or perhaps JJ isn’t comfortable with or doesn’t have access to the technology herself, so she would actually visit the public library to start her project. One she logs in, she’d have a series of templates to choose from. Maybe she wants to write a paperback book… or a comic book… whatever. Next, when Jenny creates that book project via her library, a record with a ‘work-in-progress’ item type is automatically generated in the library catalog. JJ’s work in progress is now discoverable in the same context as Charles Dickens or John Grisham, a huge psychological boost for her as a new writer. As she writes her new book, JJ has tweaked her settings so that other interested library patrons are able to watch and track the progress. They can comment and even participate if she invites them to do so; group authoring could be supported on this platform.

Most exciting of all for JJ is that this library software could work like a Kickstarter for printing books. If a sufficient number of patrons felt her project had the merit to be published as a print volume, they could vote it up to the top Reddit style, and then commit real money toward editioned printing via lulu.com or even an in-house Espresso Book Machine at the library. The community then actually determines what gets published beyond the web. Once the book is committed to print publishing, it no longer exists only as an eBook in the library catalog, but there will be a hard copy at the library as well.

The new public library needs to establish itself as an institution with a commitment to the production of knowledge just as deep as its existing commitment to the consumption of knowledge. The public library needs to be involved in all the touchpoints of the creative life cycle rather than just the beginning and the end. Content creation cannot be viewed as a targeted developmental service for kids and teens, it needs to be reconsidered as a core part of lifelong learning. The future I propose and the means by which libraries might create it requires an intentional shift; no future is inevitable. This investment in appropriate spaces, facilities, and staff as well as software, servers, and developers is the new infrastructure for the new library. It is not a small investment, but it is one worth making. Let’s make this happen.

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