Expressive Commons · Libraries

Are Libraries Missing (Half) the Boat?

“Oh, you must really love books”, people have said to me when they learn that I have a Masters Degree in Library Science.  Well, sure, I love books, but not extraordinarily so.   And I do have a passion for libraries—not so much because they house books per se, but because they are among the few institutions in our society that genuinely facilitate self-empowerment.  Acting upon the truth behind the cliché “Knowledge is Power”, libraries can be thought of as empowerment engines.  Their raison d’etre is to help people connect with the resources that might satisfy their information needs – whatever those needs may be.  It is because of this ethos of non-judgmental respect and empowerment that I still proudly identify myself as a librarian—even though I have not worked in a “library” for decades.

Much has changed during those decades.  Are libraries still relevant today?  My former knee-jerk reaction (“Of course!”) has given way to a more nuanced position.  I feel deeply committed to that ethos of information-based empowerment that libraries for so long championed.  But libraries have lost their near monopoly on this ethos.  Many information services today exemplify similar values.  Internet search engines point searchers to relevant resources without judging what that information might be used for.  The practice of open tagging (and resulting folksonomies) enables us to collectively build keys of access that validate our individual and shared perspectives on the world.  Wikipedia and other “information commons” explicitly recognize and share the bounty of our common wisdom and cognitive surplus.  Do libraries still have a special role to play?  I’d like to think so.  But I think they are missing the boat.  Or, more to the point, half of the boat.  Here’s why.

The dramatic changes wrought by technology upon the information environment can be considered from two interrelated perspectives: form and directionality – both of which have been brought about by the liberation of information from physical to electronic media (“atoms to bits”)

Form refers to the proliferation of “containers” in which information is expressed.  Books and other paper-based forms used to dominate the information environment.  But today’s landscape is crowded with an ever growing array of audio, video, graphic, online, virtual and other forms of information.

Directionality, on the other hand, refers to the patterns of how information flows among us.  Until recently (with notable exceptions like letters to the editor or “public access” TV that nobody watched) opportunities to reach thousands or millions of people were rare – except for the privileged few who “owned a printing press” (or broadcast station).  Now that’s changed.  Opportunities to share information with the world beckon from all around.  As Clay Shirky has asserted, we are “living through the largest increase in human expressive capability in history.”

Together, these changes of information’s form and directionality are having an unprecedented, profound effect on our society.  They are altering how people relate to information and to one another, challenging the very foundations of many of our cultural institutions and, as David Weinberger so eloquently describes in Everything is Miscellaneous and Too Big to Know, changing the nature of knowledge and meaning in our world.  It’s a big deal.

So, how have libraries, these information-based empowerment engines that have inspired me and so many others, reacted to this emerging, robust information ecology?  Wikipedia’s description of libraries provides an important clue:

A library (from French “librairie”; Latin “liber” = book) is an organized collection of information resources made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing [that] can include books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, films, maps, prints, documents, microform, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, e-books, audiobooks, databases, and other formats.

downloaded from Wikipedia May 25, 2013

This description of the role of libraries reflects an admirable response to recent proliferation in the form of information, but is virtually silent in terms of changes in its directionality.  Put another way, libraries are increasingly effective at helping their users to access information in its many forms; but they don’t appear to be paying much attention to helping their users to take advantage of new opportunities to express their own information.

To be fair, this is not entirely true.  Libraries have traditionally enabled users’ self-expression via exhibit spaces and bulletin boards or meeting rooms.  Moreover, in recent years libraries have invested heavily in providing public access terminals, and have made serious commitments to helping their users take advantage of many of the Internet’s social tools – like by helping them join Facebook or Twitter, or set up a blog.

Mo makes a point about love.

But, sincere and useful as these services are, they are not “baked into” the identity of libraries, as illustrated by the Wikipedia description.  Ask anyone on the street what a library is, and their answer is almost sure to describe the library’s role entirely in terms of helping their users to access other people’s information.

But if libraries are to help their users relate effectively to the changing information landscape, to continue being “information-based empowerment engines”, then they need to take their role in facilitating expression just as seriously as they do their role in facilitating access.  The value proposition of libraries has long been, “We will help you access the vast array of information that originates outside the library’s community”.  But, to facilitate information empowerment today, the value proposition should be amended to include, and we will help you share your knowledge and information, and connect with one another.”


… rather than flowing in many directions, as is typical of the emerging, robust information ecology.


But, is this an overextension of the library’s role?  Aren’t there already plenty of other new services (Facebook and Twitter come immediately to mind) that are dedicated to facilitating expression and connection?  Why should libraries bother?  Why should they burden themselves with yet another role, when they are already struggling with their “primary” role of facilitating access?

Several reasons…

  1. Philosophically, libraries have long regarded expression and access as two sides of the same coin.  In its very first paragraph, the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (8th ed.), a fundamental philosophical document of the profession, declares that “Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and the circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled.” (p. xvii).
  2. Actually, though, the “two-sided coin” of access and expression is really not two-sided at all.  We now recognize that information and knowledge exist in a rich, social ecology.  Facebook’s half billion subscribers (to take one prominent example) do not think of themselves simply as consumers, or even producers, of information.  They are also sharing, “liking” and commenting upon other people’s posts and pictures; they are creating their own groups, pages, events and identities.  People are increasingly becoming editors, transferrers, translators, corruptors, gatekeepers, curators, amplifiers, vandalizers and mash-uppers of information.  Libraries that fail to recognize, validate and support the diversified roles of their users within a diversified information environment are being short-sighted, to say the least.
  3. Libraries enjoy certain assets that put them in a particularly unique position to present the whole package of access, expression and everything in between.
    1. Legitimacy: Libraries are established and trusted institutions.  Over centuries of experience, they have earned a reputation for helpfulness, safety, respect and fairness.
    2. Infrastructure: Despite eroding revenue sources, libraries have well-established facilities and systems.   The people who work with libraries not only have a deep and dynamic tradition of knowledge and skills about managing access to information, they also tend to be deeply committed to the ethos of intellectual freedom and empowerment.
    3. Community: Even if they are open to serving others “outside” of their core community, most libraries identify with and are committed to a particular geographic, academic or organizational community.  They don’t have the burden of having to create a community; they are already familiar institutions within existing communities.

This last reason is especially important, because self-expression can be considered through various lenses.  An individual’s expression can be disseminated to the world, or limited to a particular community – or anything in between.  Disseminating one’s information to the world (or, at least to whoever’s listening) can be tremendously empowering; it can create connections, spread memes, enlighten others.  But, when reflected within the context of an existing community, self-expression can have the additional effects of strengthening that community, reinforcing its identity, building social capital.  People express themselves (and react to others’ expressions) differently within an identified community.  A community is its own sort of ecosystem, and the greater the number and diversity of connections within it, the more robust and capable that community can be.

So, what would it look like if libraries took their role of facilitating expression as seriously as they do their role of facilitating access?  Here are some ideas:

Highlight services and tools for self-expression available within the community.  Libraries can organize information about all sorts of expressive opportunities in their communities, e.g.,

  • local manufacturers of customized bumper stickers, magnetic car ornaments (e.g., ribbons), T-shirts, caps, trophies, flags and all sorts of promotional paraphernalia (e.g., pens, lanyards, coffee mugs …)
  • tattoo and body art parlors
  • photocopy and printing services
  • venues for local performances of theater, dance, artwork, music, stand-up comedy, poetry slams…
  • sources (including fellow individuals) for buying, renting or borrowing bullhorns, labelmakers, engraving tools, stencils, audio and video recording and broadcast equipment, etc
  • local interest groups and courses in writing, painting, music, amateur (ham) radio, and so on.
  • donor recognition opportunities in which messages can be displayed (e.g., on a brick)
  • “support ads” in yearbooks, community directories, diner placemats, programs for special events
  • phone numbers for local call-in talk radio shows
  • addresses (as well as instructions and tips) for submitting articles, letters to the editor, and classified ads to local print publications
  • instructions for submitting content to local public access media
  • forms for ordering personalized (“vanity”) or special group license plates

Users are resources, too.  Some of the richest learning resources already available to libraries – but largely unrecognized and untapped – are the users themselves.  Put another way, a great source of information about virtually any subject may be a fellow user.  In addition to satisfying many learning needs, enabling users to share information about themselves – their skills, backgrounds, interests, passions, perspectives – also helps build social capital to strengthen the community.  A library could utilize the group identity features offered by many social networking sites, like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.  Or it could integrate social information into the library’s existing catalog of resources.  I created such a service as a reference librarian for the Ridley Township (PA) Public Library in the mid 1980’s, which simply used paper forms for input and special cards interfiled in the card catalog.

Emily makes a point.

Advertise this!
We naturally think of advertising as a commercial endeavor.  But outside of the commercial realm, advertising outlets can be a viable and potent forum for personal self-expression – for those able and willing to spend the money.  So, helping users be aware of locally available advertising agencies, brokers and outlets is another component of facilitating self-expression for any purpose.

Socialize everything.  Every single resource that the library makes available to its users – every book, DVD, periodical, online resource and so on – can be viewed as an opportunity around which users might connect.  All of these types of resources can be considered as potential objects which people might rank, rate, “like”, endorse, tag, comment upon, write a review about or link to other items.  Libraries could, for instance, help aggregate recommendations and reviews on Amazon or Goodreads from members of their community.  Or, they could go low-tech; imagine a simple loose-leaf binder with users’ hand-written book reviews, along with adhesive labels (like, colored dots) put on the spines of books for which such review have been written.

Broadening the library’s role to facilitate expression and connection is not so much about technology as it is about a mindset of continuing commitment to information empowerment in a changing world.  Experiment.  Peter Lehu, a branch library manager in Philadelphia, for instance, runs a weekly “open mic night” in the community center adjoining the library.  And users themselves may have useful ideas for expressive opportunities.  If librarians can broaden their perspective to appreciate the whole, multi-directional ecology of information and knowledge in today’s world, they can become more relevant, more effective and more valuable information-based empowerment engines for their communities.


7 thoughts on “Are Libraries Missing (Half) the Boat?

  1. Great stuff Seth.
    I notice that some of library community is already there… R. David Lankes talks eloquently about the need for libraries to become more integrated into the lives of the communities they serve, and to facilitate the conversations that create engaged communities. I highly recommend his Atlas of New Librarianship and Expect More.
    Here in British Columbia, Canada, we are seeing a number of libraries moving to facilitate these community links, doing everything from becoming more integrated into the business of local goverment, to actively designing space so that it can be used for community engagement and conversation.
    We’re also seeing libraries collaborating and sharing resources, increased use of online professional communities, and increased connection with the school system and the teacher librarians there. You might want to look at the conference we held in December, Changing Times, Inspiring Libraries, that brought together librarians from public, academic and K-12 settings, along with the agencies and administrators that fund them, to look at some of the fundamental qquestions of how we rethink what’s possible for libraries in the context of community.
    The location of this link, the Commons, is an online professional community for BC libraries.


  2. Wow, Tim, thanks for the response, and for the references. I started listening to the videos of Lankes’s talk, and I thought it was great! “The collection is the community”, he says. And I love his examples of a “tenure librarian” and that European library practice of “lending people” in a “prejudice library(?)”. And the notion that libraries don’t have to be the same.

    He seems to be saying, in effect, that libraries should engage with their communities and say, “We can create information platforms and services. How can we help you?”

    I was about to say that, since I’m not working in a library, I don’t really have any “skin in the game”. But, actually, I’m starting to realize that we all have skin in the game of information services in a democracy.

    Thanks for posting this reply, Tim. I look forward to checking out the other references.


  3. Great post!

    I’ve often pondered the future of library service and while I usually land on something central to each library’s community, I hadn’t considered the theme of local expression as a modern “collection’s” focus.

    I do have one thought on the matter that argues for a more national focus:

    While more of us than ever before have access to large audiences to express our ideas, the platforms that allow for that expression have become increasingly commercial, needlessly intrusive, clandestine, closed (as it related to information access) and consolidated .

    I think a dedicated group of libraries could provide a counterbalance, or at least incubate one; but for this particular goal, targeting just a community isn’t thinking big enough….


  4. Seth, I love all of your examples of how libraries, particularly public libraries, can push out value rather than simply pull in content. But I take issue with the idea that libraries have almost exclusively been about collections – read the memoirs of anyone who grew up the wrong color, with the wrong parents, in the wrong part of town, and an inordinate number not only extoll books but the people, often librarians, who pushed those books upon them.

    Which brings me to education as process. Clay Shirkey is not alone in believing that anyone with access to bandwidth is not just liberated but limitlessly liberated. (This view is so mainstream that Thomas Friedman expresses it several times a month.) But this is simply wishful thinking if you think about the non-virtual world. There may be an information surplus, but a cognitive surplus – not so much.

    All educators need to be pushing out, not just librarians. Literacy doesn’t just happen; it needs process; process needs infrastructure; infrastructure needs money.

    Anyway, I am thrilled to have seen this.


  5. @andrew and @scott… Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I reply below:

    @andrew, I share your consternation about the increasingly commercial (etc.) nature of platforms that allow for dissemination to a wider audience. Part of my thinking is that targeting a single community IS big enough (in fact, just the right size) for self-expression that has the (explicit or implicit) purpose of building that community. E.g., sharing ethnic cooking skills, compiling local venues for reading poetry…). But, as you point out, people often want to shout out to the wider world, and then they run into the Facebook-ization of options. So, I think your idea of collective of libraries providing a “counterbalance” is really intriguing. Perhaps when people express themselves within the context of the library’s own community, they could have an option to share their expression throughout a network of similarly organized libraries. Very interesting…

    @scott, you bring up some really good points. Like many “bean counters”, I neglected to recognize the long-standing “softer” values provided by libraries and librarians (as opposed to “collections”). These are real, and real important; and I appreciate your raising them. I also think that considering librarians within a broader group of educators, and advocating that they all need to be “pushing out”, makes sense. But I don’t think this is the same as helping library users “push out” their own messages.

    I also like your point about the non-virtual world being less amenable to encouraging cognitive surplus (i.e., the sort of free sharing of knowledge that produces Wikipedia, a la Shirky). But I wonder if it might be encouraged. My paper-based experience at the Ridley Twp. Library in the 80’s was encouraging, but short-lived (it died, when I, its advocate, left the library). I’m intrigued by the idea I suggested (made up out of whole cloth) of a loose-leaf binder with hand-written book reviews written by library users (and some physical indication on the books themselves to indicate a local review is available). This example is totally non-virtual, but would encourage and reveal plenty of cognitive surplus. Would it work (assuming a real commitment on the part of the library to promote it)? I have no idea. It’s easy to idealize such scenarios when you don’t work in a library. So, perhaps it is wishful thinking. But I do believe that people WANT to share knowledge with their broader community (and not just with their family and friends, as they currently do).


  6. This was indeed stimulating! I haven’t been able to see libraries in this light yet. Of course it is the natural consequence of the new media system that libraries would be conduits to this folk information.

    My first thought, though, is about the deluge. When does the curation of patron-generated content come in?


  7. It’s a good question, Christine, about accessibility among the deluge — curation being one strategy (collaborative filtering and all sorts of use of metadata being others). And I suppose it’s a real challenge if this sort of thing were truly embraced. But the risk of too much information — especially set against the potential benefits of building social capital — should not be a reason to preemptively stifle such expression. Besides, that’s what libraries DO: they take a world full of information and apply tools and techniques to enable it all to “fit” into that friendly building up the street.


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