The Deep Mission of Public Libraries

Why do we have public libraries?

Many of today’s librarians like to talk about themselves as “information brokers” or “knowledge facilitators.”  We talk about our skill in finding and organizing information.  And sure, we’ve got those skills.

But what we really do is support literacy.  This is our deeper mission.

In the minds of our patrons, the most prevalent definition of a public library is “that place that has all the books.”

But why bother having all those books?  Those books allow our community to be more literate.  They provide a way for us to share and promote reading, at all levels, for all kinds of people.  The library provides a way for people who would not otherwise have access to books, to have access to books, and to connect people who have books, with different kinds of books. The library provides a wide range of books for a wide diversity of people.  It allows the community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding and appreciating the printed word.

miller avenue branch library

Books are becoming less central to our perception of literacy.  It’s not that physical books are dying, but they are no longer the only occupiers of their ecological niche.  Digital media, whether it be eBooks, or web pages, or apps, or texting, or whatever else you want to add to the list, is encroaching.  It is ubiquitous and consuming.

Libraries are not dying, but as books become less central, libraries too need to evolve, or we will be edged out.

What should public library evolution look like?

800px-Evolution-des-wissens

Talking about libraries as places for information, rather than books, is one way to think about it.  This model puts the librarian at the center of the library.  She is collecting, curating, and disseminating information.  She is a better-than-Google search ninja.

Another way to think about our future libraries is to expand our understanding of literacy.  Literacy has been a fluid concept, looking back through time.  We have defined literacy variously, as being able to recite, as being able to write one’s name, as reading, as reading and understanding.  As opportunities to read became more common, due in part to improved printing and communication technology, our definition of literacy became more sophisticated.

Our definition of literacy needs now to expand again in response to our culture of rapid technological innovation.

Public libraries need to embrace digital and technological skills as part of our deep mission to support literacy.

This model, where libraries support an expanded idea of literacy, puts the patron at the center of the library.  The library is about supporting and improving the patron’s life.  It is about allowing the patron to move from consumer to maker, breaker, creator and repairer.  I prefer this model, to the information broker model.  It’s messier.  It’s sexier.  It’s more interesting.  And it’s more necessary.

obsolete_technology_by_paperbeatsscissors-d4oydf3

Our patrons need help with every level of technology literacy.  From those who come in who don’t know how to use a mouse, to those who’re interested in building a computer from scratch, the library could provide a wide range of resources for a wide diversity of people.  We can help our community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding, using, and appreciating technology and digital content.

We’re kind-of getting there.  We’ve got computers and the free internet for our patrons.  We’re doing some classes and programs to help people develop their skills.  And then of course we’ve got the maker movement.

It is in this context, of expanded literacy, that the maker fad starts to become something more important.  Maker Spaces are totally hot right now.  Everybody wants a 3D printer.

We’re in a bubble of bandwagonism.  But after this settles down, I think we’ll be in a better place.  It will be more accepted to support digital literacy, from helping patrons understand where the url bar is to helping patrons understand how to build an app, wire a circuit, or repair their PC.  We won’t be so rabid about it, but we’ll have the foundations in place to really get down to work.

Photo: Miller Avenue Abandoned Library by Flickr User aaron.michaels, Creative Commons License

Photo: Evolution Des Wissens By Johanna Pun for Wikimedia Deutschland (Wikimedia Deutschland) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Floppy knows that feel, Cassette. From Obsolete Technology by paperbeatsscissors. Creative Commons License.

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: Adult Services Blog » The Deep Mission of Public Libraries

  2. I kind of feel like when we talk about building an app or a computer, we’ve either expanded the concept of literacy so wide as for the word to almost lose its meaning (although I can see how expansion of the metaphor gradually got us there). I am very interested in the core mission of libraries, and enjoyed your article.

    Having worked in libraries for a couple of years, I have developed a hypothesis for the modern mission of libraries:
    Libraries facilitate three kinds of connections for their members:
    1. connections to information
    2. connections to culture
    3. connections to society and community

    connections are multidirectional: consumption and creation of information and culture, as well as remixing, sharing, and discussion of it by communities.

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