Not that long ago when I was still living in the suburbs the next town over embarked on a massive construction project for a big new public library. I recall thinking at the time: but what will they put there? Of course books aren’t going away over night but still if you are on the board of a public library it is not difficult to envision a time where you need a lot less space for books. What should you be doing instead?
One interesting answer to that question is coming out of Chicago, which has added a Maker Lab to one of its public libraries. This very much seems to me in keeping with the original motivation for public libraries, which was to provide access to resources for advancement. It raises the question as to what else public libraries could provide access to today.
First, I do think that public libraries could and should not abandon books. In fact, a strong case can be made for libraries becoming more active in the preservation of books and accumulation of knowledge in specific areas. What the Internet makes possible though is an increase in specialization. So there could be a public library somewhere that focuses on finance and another one on medecine. They could actively and aggressively pursue acquisition in their specific domain and then make those resources available not just locally but to the world (through digitization).
Second, access to maker technology as in the Chicago example is a great idea. This could include not just items to be used on site but as and maybe more importantly the ability to borrow. For example, Lego robotics kits are quite expensive for individual families and often get used to build only one or two projects. The same goes for Arduino and Raspberry Pi kits and the associated equipment such as soldering and measurement.
Third, public libraries could play an important role in the reshaping of learning and education. Many online classes are accessible for free or relatively low fees. But space for meeting in person is hard to come by. That’s true for forming study groups that meet in person or classes that are taught in person. I am fortunate that I can use a big space at the USV offices when I teach my Skillshare class, but for many others space is a big constraint.
Some libraries have invested a fair bit of money in providing Internet access itself through terminals. While I appreciate that for some people that may be the only way they can access the Internet and so serves a purpose, it strikes me that this is more of a local policy issue. Access to the Internet these days is as important as access to clean drinking water. You wouldn’t want to leave the latter to the public library either.
I would love to hear from readers what they think public libraries should do for the future. Also any good other examples of what to do (or not to do) would be great.