So, let’s just image nor a minute that public libraries did not exist and never have. And let’s imagine for a minute that some brilliant person or persons came up with this idea to use tax dollars to create a groundbreaking new service aimed at fulfilling the same mission of the public library. I wonder what that would look like.
Here’s what I think.
The starting point for this exercise is a mission that covers some of the elements included in public library mission statements from across America. This could include (but is in no way limited to) some of the items I’ve paraphrased below:
- Lifelong learning
- Community engagement and participation
- Provide access to cultural, intellectual and informational resources
- Equal access for all members of the community
- Promoting personal, professional, educational growth
- Exposure to new ideas, cultures, promote intellectual freedom
- Engaging the interests of community members
- Support literacy and educational advancement
- Facilitation of learning and communication within the community
- Engage in collaborative efforts to meet community information needs
So just say that the mission we plan to serve in our “library-free” world includes these elements, and we are not bound by the cultural and historical definitions of libraries and librarians we labor under now. This means there are no pre-existing buildings to preserve, adapt, and somehow fit our new service into. There is no historical and cultural concept of what a library (or the people who work there or use the services) “should”, “must” or “can’t” be. There are no preconceived notions to combat, antiquated models to adapt or replace, no sense of what usually works.
My suspicion is that if libraries were invented right now, we would probably come up with something that would have far fewer rows of books. Instead, I think we’d see something that much more closely resembles the YMCA, with a much larger focus on ongoing educational opportunities, creative opportunities, after school programs, community projects, counseling, and maybe even swimming lessons. (Hey, why NOT build a pool?)
Libraries have talked for years about becoming more like community centers, but often the efforts to make this a reality are relegated to the sidelines in an effort to add new services to the existing “core” library functions. Sure, many public libraries offer career counseling services or creative writing workshops. More and more libraries are moving in this direction and adding community gardens, makerspaces, and distance education programs. But these awesome efforts are often (in my experience) marginalized in favor of maintaining large collections of books and a staff of MLS accredited librarians.
But what if that wasn’t the established norm? What would we call these places? Would there be buildings at all or maybe sponsored spaces throughout the community? Or a central building (I’d like to call it a ‘command center’) with local satellites? What kind of staff would be hired? What kinds of expertise would we be looking for? How would we seek to measure the needs of our communities and the effectiveness of the services we provide? In what ways would we try to forge mutually beneficial partnerships with other organizations, businesses, leaders, and community members? How would we approach governance issues and long-term funding?
These are just a handful of the questions that have been floating around in my mind on this one. Of course there are no right answers (it’s a ridiculous hypothetical situation, after all), but I’d like to think that we’d have a much different perspective.
The more I think of it, the more the ideal Library-Free World library for me takes shape in my mind. I won’t outline the whole thing, but I’ll say it includes a drive-through window, after school programs and music lessons for my kids, equipment rentals, ongoing fitness programs, and (of course) a swimming pool. I’d have access to their services no matter where I am via mobile technology, and the services would be offered to me throughout the area – at the grocery store, doctor’s office, at the beach. Broadband services would be offered throughout the community (um, HI – isn’t that a large part of what “providing access” is all about these days?), and the staff would all be enthusiastic champions of digital, news, cultural, and about a million other kinds of literacies in the community. (A girl can dream, right?)
What would your ideal Library-Free World library look like?