The Future of Libraries

The metafilter comment that’s been circling about what the massive cut to library funding in California really means:

Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. Forget trying to form grass roots political activism by creating a society of computer users, forget trying to be the ‘people’s university’ and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook (well, that is if they had any of their 2 hours left when they were done). What were we doing during the nineties? What were we doing during the boom that we’ve been left so ill served during the bust? No one seems to know. They come in to our classes and ask us if we have any ideas, and I do, but those ideas take money, and political will, and guts, and the closer I get to graduation the less and less I suspect that any of those things exist.

I’m a big supporter of libraries. We give annually to our local library (both financially and books and DVDs). I think Librarians are some of the few folks that really get what Copyright should be, and are very reliable advocates for sane copyright policy.

But at the same time I’ve got substantial frustration with parts of our libraries. I’m involved with multiple organizations that create really high quality educational content (MHLVUG and the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association being the topic examples). For 9 years we used the Mid-Hudson Library System space (for a fee) with MHVLUG. It was a great space, but there was a huge missed opportunity, as our relationship with MHLS was always just that of a tenant. At the end, MHLS cutbacks meant we had to find another space, where we moved to Vassar College.

Contrast this with the Astronomy events I’ve led at Vassar College’s Farm Preserve. Not only were we given space, but we were wrapped into their series of events on the Farm Preserve, with joint advertising by the College. That led to huge turn out, and lots of positive feedback for both the College and our group.

The Library could be this kind of thing. And if it was, it would have the Hubble effect, where the citizenry were so invested in the organization that they wouldn’t let it get cut. There are some libraries that are thinking about, and embracing these kinds of ideas. The Fayetteville Free Library is doing some amazing things with setting up a Fab Lab. Lauren Smedley is an inspiration to what the future library could be, and lots of kudos to FFL for hiring her to try to make this happen.

I’m hopeful by nature, and I think our libraries will transform, eventually. But I do think it’s going to take a new generation of librarians to think past just books, and think about community at a broader level.