In early March, I participated in a presentation and discussion on The Community Library in the 21st Century along with Maxine Bleiweis, the director of the Westport Public Library.
Libraries have been an integral part of civilization from our earliest history, including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Greek and Roman scholars came to their libraries to discuss issues and learn from each other.
Free, open public libraries were first established in communities across the UK and the US in the second half of the 19th century. Along with the rise of public schools during the same period, they were an important part of the transition from the agricultural to the emerging industrial economy which required a more literate, better educated work force.
From the 1880s through the 1920s, almost 1700 public libraries were built in the US, through the philanthropic efforts of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. His Carnegie Library Grants promoted community libraries for self-education, which was particularly important during a time when the US was absorbing large numbers of immigrants from around the world.
But, we also thought a lot about the growing digitization of books, music, videos and other content. Would there still be a need for physical libraries in the future if people could more easily find whatever content they wanted to read, listen to or watch over the Internet?
The answers to this question began to take shape as the Web continued to evolve toward its Web 2.0, social networking phase. While access to information and digital content of all sorts is very important and has continued to grow, a more profound kind of connectivity has evolved helping people interact with each other and bring them together as communities.
These new social networking capabilities have reminded us that humans are inherently social. We get together, establish communities and work and play as a team. We organize into a wide variety of institutions to get things done more effectively. We like to communicate, share ideas and learn from each other.
Lifelong learning, in particular, has emerged as one of our key challenges or opportunities - depending on one's point of view. In the past, it was assumed that the bulk of our learning was the formal education we got in school when we were young. This is no longer the case, given the fast pace at which everything is changing.
One of the most interesting efforts at measuring the long term impact of digital technologies on business and society in general is a project being conducted at the Deloitte Center for the Edge. They are rendering explicit and measuring the major drivers behind this historical transformation, and have come up with a set of measures which they call The Shift Index. Their ideas and methodologies are described in Measuring the forces of long-term change: The 2009 Shift Index.
The Shift Index includes the intriguing concept of knowledge flows. In the past, our stocks of knowledge, - what we know, - was a great source of economic value. That is no longer the case, because the increasing rate of change all around us is rapidly obsolescing knowledge. Therefore, the real economic value has now moved from the stocks of knowledge to the flows of new knowledge that we are now able to quickly acquire, and thus refresh and expand our rapidly depleting stocks of knowledge.
Economic value, for individuals as well as institutions, has thus been shifting from the amount of knowledge we have acquired over the years, to our ability to constantly learn. It is within this context that one has to consider the value of social networks and institutions, like libraries, and their impact in helping people better connect with each other, and build sustaining relationships that enhance knowledge flows and innovation.
Moreover, as the Shift Index study has observed digital, virtual interactions are important, but they are not sufficient. “As computing, digital storage, and bandwidth performance improve exponentially, virtual [knowledge] flows are likely to grow more rapidly . . . However, physical flows will not be fully replaced by virtual flows. As people become more and more connected virtually, the importance of tacit knowledge exchange through physical, face-to-face interactions will only increase, leading to more physical flows.”
The study further points out that: “Talent migrates to the most vibrant geographies and institutions because that is where it can improve its performance more rapidly by learning faster. . . . Increasing migration suggests virtual connection is not enough - people increasingly seek rich and serendipitous face-to-face encounters as well.”
Like all institutions in society, the role of the public library is evolving. It is actually expanding in multiple dimensions. Its classic role as curator of its content and information is now extended to a hybrid collection of digital, as well as physical resources. For example, none of us expect physical books to disappear anytime soon. But, the Westport Library will soon enable its members to also check out and download e-books. There will be quite a bit of experimentation in the process of establishing the right library policies for e-books, e-films and other digital content. Different rules will likely apply to large collections of older works than to popular best-sellers and films.
Then there is the library’s role as the physical, intellectual center of the community. With its many public events, - talks, panels, discussions, and so on, - the library provides an environment where people can physically interact with each other in an intellectually stimulating environment. The Westport Library, for example, offers a busy schedule of events. People are encouraged to come early and mingle, as well as stay afterwards for further discussions, that may very well continue online in the days ahead. To help attract people to its facility, the Library provides meeting rooms where people can get together, as well as a café area where it sells food and drinks.
Finally, just as public libraries played a major educational role in the transition from the agricultural to the industrial economy over one hundred years ago, they are now called upon to play a similar educational role as we transition from the industrial to our emerging knowledge economy. But these days, the education goes way beyond basic literacy.
The community library is becoming one of the key places where adults can learn about and keep up with the latest digital tools and, in particular, how to best use them to access information and participate in social media activities. Given the importance of lifelong learning, the library can teach us how to leverage these powerful digital tools for both individual and group education.
Rather than seeing digital technologies as a threat, the successful community libraries will embrace and complement them. They will expand their activities to help people come together, interact with, and learn from each other. Libraries will likely continue to play a central role in healthy, vibrant communities for many years to come.