Minneapolis Tribune: Can book-centric libraries reinvent themselves in the wake of budget cuts and greater electronic access to information? Two experts talk it over.
In a few months, a sparkling new glass-and-steel downtown library will open its doors on the Nicollet Mall. Some will hail it as a vital asset for a knowledge-dependent state. Others will call it a dinosaur. That dichotomy of thinking about public libraries doesn’t exist only in Minneapolis. Free, fast and easy Internet access to information people used to need a librarian to find is calling the question on the role and function of public libraries everywhere. That question will come to a head soon in Minneapolis, where a chronic shortfall in operating revenue was worsened by state aid cuts in 2003. Only by temporarily shuttering some of the city’s 14 branch libraries during their renovation (financed with a voter-approved bond issue in 2000) has the system avoided downsizing. Even so, city libraries laid off 25 percent of their staff and cut hours of operation to as few as 24 per week in some branches. That balanced the system’s budget through 2008. But the red ink is forecast to return in 2009, and so is the debate about the system’s size and role. With that in mind, Opinion Exchange invited an e-mail conversation about the future of libraries between the director of the Minneapolis Public Libraries, Katherine (Kit) Hadley, and a futurist who has written extensively on the subject, Thomas Frey of the Colorado-based DaVinci Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Here are excerpts from their exchange:
Frey: Libraries are not very adept at changing. They are good at serving as a source of information for a community. But their role in the information food chain has been co-opted by the Internet.
As a result, traffic going into libraries has been dropping, and an increasing percentage of that traffic is using the library computers rather than books. Libraries need to devise a unique role for themselves that meshes well with the changing interests of society.
Hadley: In fact, our library patronage (including patronage of our e-libraries) is growing, in part because of the explosion of electronic access to information. It’s changing everything about how we do what we do, and nothing about our essential purpose.
We were reminded of that at a public hearing, when one witness talked about how her Norwegian-speaking grandparents learned English at the Franklin Library. The next witness, a Somali girl, talked about how she learned English at the Franklin Library.
Frey: Still, the vast majority of space in a library is dedicated to storing and working with books. Books are a technology. From many people’s perspective, books are a dated technology. Many would argue that it takes too long to find information in a book. Books are too rigid. There’s no ability to update the information.
The libraries of the future cannot be book-centric. They need to be information-centric, idea-centric, learning-centric, and culture-centric, but they will not be book-centric.
Hadley: We purposefully took the word "information" out of our mission statement. Our goal isn’t providing access to information per se, but using information for purposes important to individuals, households and the community: learning, growing, prospering, self-governing and having fun. This requires both good information and human mediation — whether in person or remote.
Frey: Present-day search technology can’t give us the "how" and "why," and very often they are clunky at answering the "who" and the "what." The next generation of search technology will include the ability to search for such attributes as taste, smell, texture, reflectivity, opacity, mass, density, tone, speed and volume. We have a great learning curve ahead as we learn to manage and work with this type of information. We will need help, and the obvious place to turn for this type of help will be the library.
Hadley: That tells me something about our future direction. We cannot wait for people to come into the library. We need to deliver information learning services in the library and the community, in-person and remotely, one-on-one and in groups.
Frey: Yet libraries are a place, and that is an important resource. With a growing number of business executives working from a home office, they are looking for "another place" to stimulate their thinking, alter patterns, meet people, and congregate. While libraries can build electronic tentacles into our homes, there is great value in being a "place" — a place to go, different spaces for different moods, points to ponder, human sounding boards, room for introspection as well as extrospection.
Hadley: The relationship between place and information search has been severed by the Internet, and that has implications for both at libraries. Our physical places are gaining in importance as sites for neighborhood assembly and community building. As for our services, we are invigorating our role in learning, literacy and knowledge building.
Frey: Libraries can serve as terrific educational support centers. However, many communities would argue that they are already paying enough to support local education. Playing a secondary role in education may not be important enough for some to continue funding libraries.
Hadley: But since the turn of the [20th] century, libraries in the United States have served as learning institutions for adults not connected to the formal education system. This role dimmed somewhat during the latter part of the 20th century but is being invigorated now throughout the country.
Frey: A growing number of people are not content with just accessing information; they are interested in creating it. Future libraries can take on the very important role of helping patrons "create information."
Libraries should consider installing things like podcasting stations, blogging stations and vidcasting (video blogging) stations. Most of these involve expensive equipment that many can’t afford. Libraries have been there before. This is similar to when the information in books was too expensive for most people to afford.
Hadley: Yes, but it’s important that library buildings not create spaces tied to particular technology, since technology is changing so fast. Our goal with the new Central Library and our community library building projects has been to create flexible, multipurpose spaces.
Frey: It would be a mistake to build spaces tied to any of today’s technology. However, even seemingly minor things such as whether to build signal-enhancing or signal-reducing walls for wireless devices have to be considered.
Hadley: How to meet the expense associated with these changes is a big question. In my view, public libraries will continue to be primarily publicly funded. We will increase the share of our revenue from nontaxpayer sources, but only on the margin.
Frey: I agree — I don’t see the basic funding model changing. I’m guessing some will try to commercialize aspects of the library, but I don’t think this is a good idea. It would dramatically change people’s relationship with their library. Libraries shouldn’t compete with private industry.
In the past, communities competed for bragging rights over who had the best library. I see coming a different kind of competition: Which city will be the most forward-thinking? Who has the best vision of what a future library will look like? This can be a very exciting process as libraries try new things.
Hadley: The countries and cities around the globe that believe the most strongly that their future lies in a highly educated populace are investing in their public libraries.
But there’s trouble out there too. This country has already lost some public libraries; whether or not Minneapolis joins this list in the next few years will be a critical community conversation.
Talk to an immigrant who comes from a country without public libraries to understand what we will lose if they disappear.
Frey: My guess is that we will lose a few before libraries reinvent themselves. I see this as a terrible loss. The communities who pull the plug too early will live to regret their decision.