Library as Place: Comments to Advisory Group for the National Strategy for Public Libraries in Scotland

“Library as Place.” Advisory Group for the National Strategy for Public Libraries in Scotland. via Video.

Speech Text: Read Speaker Script

Abstract: Where Scotland’s public libraries need to go over the next 5 years in terms of places to support the aspirations of communities.

Audio:

[This is the script I used for my talk. I’ve also taken the opportunity to add some foot notes and links.]

Greetings and thank you for giving me time to talk about the importance of library and place at this unique point in time and moving forward. I have had the good fortune to observe and speak with librarians around the globe, including in Scotland, and see a very bright future ahead for public libraries if we invest now. Libraries have been and will continue to be vital social infrastructure for communities. They provide safe physical and digital spaces for citizens to explore dangerous ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an intimidating prospect thinking about the role of public libraries over the next 5 years. The world is changing, it seems, minute by minute. How do we forecast 5 years ahead? Well, there is good news. It turns out that in this pandemic, the process of evolution in libraries over the past decade have served us well. Today we know the library as a platform, physical and virtual, that helps communities make smarter decisions, and to help citizens find meaning in their lives.

There is a lot I could talk about, and advocate for, around the next 5 years of Scottish public libraries, but for today, let me limit my comments to the library as a place. A place online and on the ground that is part of a community crafting a new normal post pandemic. I start with a sample of how world-class public libraries have begun creating a new normal in communities globally.

In the suburbs of Oslo a branch library acts as a community living room hosting live music and an annual comicon. Meanwhile downtown the new central library has just opened with half the books as the previous main library to make room for meeting rooms, theaters, maker spaces and lecture halls to host community conversations. The role of library as convenors and facilitators of vital conversations comes from the fact that in Norway, as in Finland, the library law mandates public libraries support and promote conversations around democracy.

In Aarhus Denmark the central library has an enormous bell at its center that rings with the birth of every new child in the city. It is an auditory reminder that the library is connected to the citizens from the moment they are born. The librarians have such a strong relationship with their community that there are buildings they simply leave unlocked afterhours – allowing the community use of the library 24 hours a day. The library there is seen not as a place or a building, but as a movement where librarians work with local community organizations and businesses to advance the needs of the community.

Here in the states Seattle, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have made public libraries the cornerstones of economic and urban revitalization plans.

In Charleston South Carolina the community is turning to the library to help lead the city in increasing diversity, addressing social justice issues, and facilitating a conversation on a more just and equitable future.

Before I go farther, there is a point I cannot overstate – though I will try – all of these places may have beautiful architecture, a fine collection of materials, but none of them would rate a mention without the people that staff them. Librarians, community organizers, volunteers, all are what make a library great.

If all you do in the next 5 years is install WiFi, and loos while adding a few dollars to the collection budget, it will be 5 years wasted. What Scotland needs is a network of connected professionals dedicated to not only serving local needs but connecting local expertise to national aspirations and impacts. We are in the middle of history. Yes, the pandemic, but also a point as a world of growing xenophobic nationalism, a growing wealth gap, racial awakening, and shifting international alliances. An inflection point where democracy being tested. Scotland deserves a public library service that tends to our damaged certainty in the world and one that will knit together a social fabric that uses the diverse brilliance of her citizens to lead the way to a better tomorrow.

That may seem like a tall order, but we know how to make it happen. First, I beg you, do not think of libraries as buildings or collections. Don’t even think of them as originations and institutions. Think of them as platforms.

In technological terms, a platform is a set of functions and systems that are not only integrated tightly together, but can be used to create new services. The internet, for example, is very much a platform. It dictates how data can be shipped around a network, and defines certain features like how much data can be funneled down wires, and how to find a given computer or phone. But on top of that infrastructure, all we think of and love – or hate – about the net is built by the community. Search, social media, video sharing, train ticketing are all services built by the internet community on top of the internet platform. If you get a platform right, you can never anticipate the future, but you make it easy for communities to innovate and meet their own needs.

Now think of the public library. It should be a platform that allows local communities to build a whole host of services and experiences – both digital and physical. From something very traditional like a book group that uses a collection and a physical meeting space; to supporting entrepreneurs with things like 3D printers for prototyping and video studios for marketing their inventions. The value of a library as a platform is not measured in things like books circulated, shelf space allocated, or gate counts, but in the success of the community it supports.

The library platform consists of spaces and online catalogs (which should absolutely be linked together) and services like training. Once again, given the limited time, let me focus on the physical aspects of the public library platform, particularly, as some may question the need for an investment in bricks and mortar in these days of Zoom calls and virtual conferences.

Right outside of Florence Italy is the town of Pistoia. As a bedroom community for a large city, it has grown, and eventually a picturesque renaissance city has become a modern suburb, with no central square or piazza to congregate in. To reconnect the cities residents the city built the San Georgio public library as the new piazza. It had a café, and a large indoor and outdoor space to gather. On the weekends the library sponsors 50 different programs from iron working, to movie discussions, to cooking demonstrations. These programs are not run by the librarians however. They are run by the true collection of any library: the community.

This is the new vital role for librarians: community management. Just as professional librarians maintain, organize, and advise on a collection of books – now they are organizing, advising and connecting the community together. Librarians ensure that people feel welcome in the space, but also challenged to learn and grow. Professional librarians facilitate learning of citizens and the community as a whole.

How librarians do this? By ensuring the library platform is responsive and is truly co-owned by the community. This can and should take very different forms that embrace what is unique about a local community.

The British Library, for example, realized that if the goal of the library in terms of supporting business, was to grow new business, it had to change its physical space. In place of stacks of business books and periodicals, it installed group workspaces. It provided a stage for speakers, and a social space for networking. It filled the space not with stuff, but with specially trained librarians with certifications in business development. It created a mentoring program. These services also extend beyond the physical space and continue even in the current pandemic online.

In Philadelphia a library wanting to support local music within the city sat down and asked musicians what they wanted in a library. The musicians didn’t say more music databases or loanable scores, but two grand pianos on a stage. Musicians seek to perform. While popular bands used the local pubs to network and play, there were no venues for those interested in classical and experimental music. Musicians wanted that venue to be the library.

The plan was to have musicians meet and collaborate and then perform original music at the library. The library then recorded the music and streamed it to the globe. Instead of going to the local library to hear the music of the world, the world could now come to a citizen’s local library to hear them. Libraries around the world are loaning out instruments, and then building recording studios to put the instruments to work. They are becoming publishers of the community sharing the talent of the local globally.

In other communities libraries are using their physical spaces to build community gardens. They are taking the harvests and building farmers markets where there were none, including in food desserts where inner city families don’t have ready access to healthy produce.

In rural areas librarians and the libraries they manage are loaning out fishing poles and working with town elders to create hyperlocal wifi hubs on walking trails to share the history of the region.

All over the globe library buildings are going from quiet buildings with a few loud rooms, to loud buildings with some quiet spaces to read. This isn’t instead of traditional missions in literacy, but to extend that mission. Children find joy and excitement in reading through shared story times. One library even started a yoga reading time for parents and their children. The library also had pop-up story times that weren’t scheduled, they just happened when a critical mass of kids were in the room. Rather than ask the community to conform to the schedule of the library, the library, as all libraries should, shaped itself to the community.

At my university we pack our undergraduate students and the school mascot into a bus and drive to the poorest schools in the state to do read alouds that show all children that reading is the path to a better life. In the Netherlands a maker bus drives from school to school bringing WiFi, 3d printers, laser etchers, and other technologies otherwise unavailable to the students.

The physical space of libraries also ensures the success of the digital. The ALMPub project out of Norway examined the role of physical cultural heritage institutions like libraries and museums in an increasingly digital age. They asked the question – do we still need the physical footprint as government and businesses alike are going all digital with their services. They examined citizen uses of public spaces in Norway, Germany, and as far as Hungry. What they found was that as so much of life, particularly public life, was digitized, people needed physical common spaces more. They needed a place not just for training and service, but to be a community. To be together.

You’ve no doubt felt this same need in these days of COVID. Stuck at home, interacting through screens, cut off from colleagues, we crave connection and time to simply be in the same place at the same time. Now imagine before or after the pandemic when it is not disease that keeps you away, but long hours at multiple jobs, or inadequate access to public transportation that leads to over long commutes, or simply no place to actually go. People don’t want to hang out at the police station, or the fire house, or city hall. What other civic institution is left that can serve all citizens regardless of their income, their race, their religion, or their age? And if you don’t see that place as a library, you expect far too little from your libraries.

Please understand that I am not advocating a laundry list of prescribed hardware, services and floor plans for every library in Scotland. I am proposing the exact opposite. Yoga story hours, music studios, and traveling makerspaces are not going to meet the needs of all communities. What you must do in this five year plan, is to set up what the platform is. Then, local needs and aspirations drive the services on top. Some services built by librarians, but an increasing number built by other community members.

The core of the library platform must be a shared mission. Local libraries are going to look and act very differently – they are going to look and act like the local community. It is the job of the librarians, with a shared mission, to gather the best ideas from across the country, and then contextualize and adapt them to local needs. And that shared mission? The mission of a librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities. Or put more simply – librarians and the libraries they build, make the world better by helping people learn.

How does that play out in real life? Well, take the horror that is this current pandemic. We know this virus has caused change, death and uncertainty throughout the globe. What are we doing to learn from it? Are our libraries gathering local stories, articles, oral histories? When I think about this challenge I think of Tilburg, a town in the Netherlands, that was once a thriving train town.

The citizens of Tilburg built and repaired trains for systems across Europe. Yet as manufacturing shifted to Asia, the train industry all but disappeared. Several years ago Tilburg’s economy was rebounding with a new emphasis on small business startups and education. They decided to turn an abandoned train maintenance warehouse into the new public library.

However, before they laid one new piece of steel, they had pop up events in the warehouse to try different layouts and different programs. They invited the community in. Around the warehouse they set up enormous touch screens with photos and videos showing the history of the train industry in the town. Retired rail workers would come in and tell librarians about where they worked and what they did. The librarians would guide these workers to the touch screens and help them record their story, adding to the history. The building, the place, became a memory palace that the community built and owned. Not just with their tax dollars, but with their life experience.

I will end my remarks today with one final story, and a bit of self-interest. A small community in New Zealand was building a new public library. It was in a neighborhood called Ironwood, named for the fact that 150 years earlier the trees of the region were cut down to run iron foundries. The community wanted to commemorate this past and so on a 3 story interior wall they placed stencils of trees. Then they built a scaffolding allowing the community to climb all three stories. On the scaffolding the library placed buckets of paint mixed with soil from the site. Community members would climb the scaffolding, dip their hands in the paint, and mark a handprint on the wall. When the library was complete the scaffolding and stencil come down and what was left was a mural of a forest made up of the hands of the community.

My family traces its roots back to the McDowalls of the lowlands and the reign of Kind David the first of Scotland. Some of the libraries you are building and planning are on the soil of my ancestors and nothing will make me prouder of my heritage than knowing that Scotland supports a thriving network of public libraries dedicated to learning, rooted deeply in the local community, and with a corps of professional librarians dedicated to healing a people and empowering citizens to dream.

Thank you.

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