Recently a discussion about the future of public libraries took place in Philadelphia, a city that has seen its share of library closures in the past year. Nate Hill, a colleague of mine from Brooklyn Public Library, moderated the discussion and blogged about it at the PLA blog.
Some interesting thoughts from Nate as to what is holding public libraries back from being as useful in our modern lives as they ought to be. On the one hand, the value of the Book has always been pretty much assured. Books are the format that libraries of all stripes – academic, research, and public – deal with the most. In a time such as this of such rapid technological change and upheaval, we cannot help but re-examine the Book as a ‘device’, and quite a good one considering how long the format has been used by people from all walks of life to enjoy stories and learn new facts. Looking at books as a device (and as Nate points out, up until now the premier marketing tool in selling the services of the Public Library) we can both reassure book lovers that their beloved format is not at all dead, and put all devices of high- and low-technology in their proper perspective. Yes, some devices cost more money than others but cost has little to do with usefulness or ease of use.
Maybe it is time for libraries and librarians on our own to collaborate on a format that is durable, cost effective, easy-to-use, and heck, even stylish. Instead of looking to the marketplace for the device that suits us, why not collaborate on creating our own device? Criteria one would be that this device would not be developed to supplant the traditional printed format, but enhance it, both by giving users of libraries a choice as to how to take their reading material, and by allowing more space for material that is still more enjoyable or useful when taken in on the printed page.
Given what we know about the limitations of the book format, the technologies that we now have at our disposal, and the need to continue the mission of the Public Library as a place that contains information for learning and recreation for all, I expect to hear more about librarians collaborating on projects that seek to develop a new device or series of devices that are portable, durable, versatile, and most of all, cheap. The time is now to start thinking of ways that we can make use of current technologies in their services to benefit the greatest number of people in their city or town for the lowest cost.