For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
April 9, 2009 - imagine the post-Kindle public library building
I can think of two, maybe three times before when the technology of text has proven disruptive.
1. Gutenberg. The widespread, rapid and inexpensive printing of the Bible let people read it themselves, bypassing the middleman of the priest. Consequence: the Protestant Reformation.
2. Broadsides. The blogs of their day (the American Colonial period), broadsides provided cheap and subversive entertainment for the masses. They also fomented enough anti-Anglican rebellion to result in the Revolutionary War.
3. Personal websites and blogs. Tenacious outsiders could (and many did) voice non-mainstream views of the news. If they managed to be either outrageous or authoritative enough, some bloggers found themselves with thousands of followers overnight. While economics probably had more to do with the mounting collapse of big city newspapers, this independent "publishing" certainly chipped away at print subscriptions.
The pattern is clear: when technology allows for an explosion of opinion and communication, existing power structures are in for a ride.
Is the fourth case the electronic text, coupled with a cheap and ubiquitous reader? And will both publisher and public library be toppled?
Last week, I suggested one library response: gather, publish, and distribute the works of local authors electronically. This week, I'd like to imagine the public library building, let's say eight to ten years into the future.
I'm supposing that everyone who wants one, now has their $20 mobile device, and has access either directly or through the library (think "the people's jukebox") to some level of digital texts, music and movies. So do we still have bricks and mortar libraries? And if so, what will we find there?
Here's what I think:
* Children's books and storytimes. At least half of the library is devoted to bright, colorful children's texts. The modern electronic ebook reader is backlit, displays color, and is portable. But children's books continue to be artifacts for exploration: with multi-page, fold-out, pop-up illustrations. These tales, and more, are brought to life by gifted and skilled storytellers, live performers who daily make magic in children's lives -- and so set them on the path to literacy and lifelong learning.
* Public computing/cafés. Nearly a quarter of library space is devoted to accessible technology. Even in well-heeled communities, not everyone can afford high-speed, high-end computing. The form of this will surely change over time: desktops give way to laptops give way to manipulable touch-screen walls give way to ... who knows? But as the media changes, libraries will continue to be advocates for public access to it. Some of this space will also be devoted to display of digital texts -- perhaps using that touch-screen wall idea.
* Multipurpose meeting space. Collaborative classrooms and workshops. Live performance by both staff and community. Group study space. Book discussion clubs! Civic groups. People need to see and touch and talk to each other. We're wired for it.
* Interactive displays. An idea floating along the edges of librarianship for some time now is the convergence of museums and libraries. Imagine a 1,500 square foot "room" in every library that changes every month or so, introducing irresistible exhibits of local history, wonders of the natural world, cutting edge technology, travel, and more.
* Server space. Behind the scenes (or heck, maybe right out in the open), the library maintains a robust virtual library: enhanced catalog, online communities, rich educational offerings, streaming video and conferencing. This is the library that never closes, and can be counted on to provide an authoritative introduction to the uniqueness of the local community.
* Home base for librarians who spend almost as much time outside the library as inside, who partner with a host of local government and business efforts to improve the quality of life in the community. But these librarians also need a place to research, and perhaps to schedule appointments with those members of the public whose questions require more time and/or privacy.
Because the library has always been about personal choice and freedom, because we have always offered a broad range of services, because so many of those services still depend on direct personal contact, I think we are far less vulnerable to the mission-altering disruption of technology.
Will we survive the post-Kindle world? I think we will. What do you think?
LaRue's Views are his own.