With an avalanche of changes in the information landscape over the past decade, libraries are looking at ways to redefine themselves. But how?
Throughout the discussion, Palfrey focused on the potential for libraries to modernize the role they play in our increasingly interconnected society, particularly when it comes to searching for and retrieving information.
Libraries tend to be the last step in a long process of research, he said. Most of the time, we use Internet search engines like Google to find out which book or other form of media might interest us. Once we hone in on the right title, we look to websites like Amazon to determine which version is most attractive or suitable. We don’t actually visit our local library to check out what we want until long after we’ve exhausted a world of online tools.
To solve this problem, Harvard is currently developing a way to help libraries meet the sorting and evaluation functions now fulfilled by Google and Amazon, said Palfrey, professor of Law and vice dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School and a faculty director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
He went on to demonstrate a Web app that virtualizes a library’s book stack, assigning specific colors according to how many times people have used each article. Essentially, the tool meets the networking needs of online reviews by digitally displaying books in relation to their popularity. It also recreates the serendipitous experience of perusing a library shelf.
An important innovation, the app is just one way to help satisfy the overwhelming need for libraries to integrate themselves in the network exchange of information.
Sharing a slightly different perspective, Csikszentmihályi took a step back to look at the larger role libraries might play in their communities.
Less costly, more effective communications technology are allowing more people to contribute their knowledge to the public domain, the director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media said. So he proposed thinking of libraries as capable of taking part in the creation of free, online, collaborative content. The change would not only revolutionize the range of services libraries could provide, but also engage residents in important new ways.
Libraries, for instance, could help further develop open-source technology, he said. Drawing on a few examples, he provoked the audience to consider the potential for libraries to to serve as the hubs facilitating these kinds of advancements, disruptive as their products may be.
Csikszentmihályi cited projects like Sourcemap, a free platform for researching, optimizing and sharing supply chains to help people learn where things come from and what they are made of, and the Creative Commons, an expansion of copyright law to increase the range of shareable creative works, as breakthroughs in this free culture movement.
The idea is that increased networking capabilities and decreased funding have placed libraries in a unique position to help make information more easily available to the public. How and when the actual implementation of these suggestions takes place is yet to be determined.
The Library Conference is part of Knight Foundation’s Library Initiative, which is helping libraries in 27 cities become true digital community centers that help foster informed and engaged communities.