Saturday, May 21, 2011

Transforming Libraries

Recently I've been coming across stories about famous authors trying to save libraries, or just whingeing about how libraries are fading away.

But what is happening to libraries... perhaps it is inevitable in some respects.

What function do libraries really serve anymore? If Armageddon hit tomorrow, and all electronic communications were wiped out... libraries sure would come in handy. But outside of that?

Yes, libraries have served their purpose for centuries. Our modern civil society would not have been possible without libraries standing as the backbone, supporting education and the common good.

But the time has come to ask a simple question - why would people go to a library today?

To take out books? Okay, but books are quite cheap, and millions of titles are freely available online. What else? To use the internet? In some rural communities, libraries still serve as useful access points for the internet. But beyond that, what?

I think a revolution in thought about what constitutes a library is needed.

For an analogy, I'll use mobile phones. Today when you buy a mobile, it is not just a phone, it is also a camera, a voice recorder, and a basic to advanced computer. Phone manufacturers would never dream of trying to sell us on plain old "no bells and whistles, only makes calls" phones today, because they probably would not sell.

In his grumpy rant, Phillip Pullman unintentionally hints at a way libraries could be saved - by transforming.

The cost of a stand-alone library is huge. But what if the library was also a day-care? What if it was also a place where meeting rooms could be rented out for presentations or night classes? What if they had tutoring businesses attached to them?

The problem with libraries is not a problem of funding. It is a problem of imagination.

There is just something so odd in how our society takes this view that certain institutions, like libraries, or schools, have to be a certain way. The average classroom looks no different than classrooms of two hundred years ago. Students sitting at desks, in rows, looking at a teacher who will "fill them" with knowledge.

It's garbage.

It was fine for the time, but times have changed. The economic underpinnings of our society (developed, western) has completely changed several times over the past two hundred years. We went from agrarian to industrial to information to service and creativity.

Everything about our society has changed and evolved continuously, except for those institutions that are the bedrock of our common good. Police departments have changed and evolved. Fire departments have changed and evolved. But our schools and libraries are sinking rocks in a sea of change.

It's time for them to smarten up.

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