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Libraries of the Future

September 13, 2002

I recently reviewed a book called “Libraries designed for users: a 21st century guide.” The sum of the book equals the ideal modern library, and what a remarkable place it has become. Reading this book reminded me of how different the modern library really is from anyone’s tired, or wishful, stereotype.

Designers of new libraries must consider such things as: teen center with music, place for quiet study, children’s storytelling space, staff lounge, meeting rooms with facilities, ADA accessibility, local history center, coffee bar, copy center, computer center, Internet service, future expansion … all on one level.

Perhaps it’s the burden of success that we will want to add just one more function, and then another, to the mission of the public library.

I was taken with something the author wrote: “Ken Dowlin, a leader in encouraging library innovation in the 1990s, once said that managing a library today was like trying to fix a tire while a car was rolling down a hill.”

Perhaps Ken should have stopped the car first. Ken Dowlin is an alternately respected and reviled library visionary, but as a manager he had trouble paying for his vision.

He’s most famous as the ousted director of the San Francisco Public Library who dragged the library downhill into the 21st century (my interpretation). Before that, Dowlin directed the Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, which paid for his visions, too.

All modern libraries face the challenge of how to pay for expanded roles they assume. Consider that our library was chosen by the Colorado State Library to receive a public computer lab of 12 computers from the (Bill) Gates Foundation. I turned it down.

I tried to make it fit, but I could neither provide a workable space nor accept some of the other constraints of the grant. Free stuff never comes free.

The arguments against Ken Dowlin’s electronic vision for the SFPL came down to this: that there are important functions that only a public library can perform and that these should not suffer in order to pay for more new things.

Slashing the book budget to pay a million-dollar annual phone bill was unacceptable.

What do we look for in a public library? The library is a place — a shared, public place open to all. In this place is collected, to the best of a library’s abilities, a diverse sampling of our culture’s thoughts and knowledge.

Libraries have established practices, such as to collect broad works — general and specialized encyclopedias, for example — as well as individual titles; to provide magazines and newspapers; to provide access to its collection with a carefully constructed catalog; and through sharing to provide access to other libraries.

And now, libraries offer free access to the Wild West of the Internet; in fact, they are helping to tame it with established library methods of cataloging control.

We live in interesting times, as the pseudo-Chinese curse says, but they’re not cursed times. They’re just interesting.

How will libraries deal with the demand for Internet connectivity for wireless PDAs? With print-on-demand books (the hardware is nearly affordable now)? With collecting MP3 files? The challenge is both financial and legal, but the demand will be real.

How should libraries balance the public service aspect of extensive record-keeping versus the respect for privacy and anonymity that guides us to truncate those records?

There’s a rock and there’s a hard place, and it’s really not so bad in between. It’s where our job is.

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