Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Libraries use digital technology to redefine their roles in communities

Feb. 10, 2013, 8:49 p.m., Posted by Annie Schutte

Photo credit: Flickr user Eric Kornblum

The increasing prevalence and proliferation of digital content has pushed libraries to redefine themselves over the past decade. Knight Foundation brought together library directors from across the country this weekend to discuss this issue and hear from one panel of librarians tackling the digital question from different angles.

Larra Clark, director of the Program on Networks and Associate Director of the Program on America's Libraries for the 21st century in the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology Policy, described the shift in libraries as broadening from merely distributing books to focusing on "learning, reading, and literacy" in every form and format. 

Pat Losinski, CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Library in Ohio, said libraries need to begin "making the transition from outputs to community-based outcomes." Right now, he said, about 70 to 80 percent of libraries' operating budgets are still going to the distribution of physical items, and that has to change. 

The Columbus Metropolitan Library conducted a survey asking its community to submit five words to describe the library of their youth, and then five words to describe a public library 20 years from now. The change in language was incredible. Patrons most commonly described the library of their youth with the words "books," "research," "reading," "information," "education," and "quiet."  But the language of the future was "community," "technology," "research," access," and "information."

The focus of this year's Knight conference is "From Building Collections to Making Connections," and this theme is sewn into the very fabric of discussions about the digital impact on libraries of every type.

Toby Graham, Deputy University Librarian at the University of Georgia and Director of the Digital Library of Georgia, shared the university's experience as a statewide hub for libraries, archives, museums and historical societies across the state seeking to digitize their cultural heritage materials. The university's library is shifting from being a regional collaborator and collection builder to now participating in the nationwide effort to build the Digital Public Library of America - a Knight-funded project that will launch in April.

The Digital Library of Georgia and other state and regional digital-library initiatives already enhance and create community around local cultural history efforts. But the Digital Library of Georgia's new position as a Digital Public Library of America service hub will grow those communities locally and connect them nationally by providing resources for more local groups to digitize their materials and then aggregate access to them through the central Digital Public Library of America portal. The Digital Public Library of America also plans on giving all of the content back to the users by having a completely open API that will allow users to slice, use, and reuse the data in whatever way is most beneficial to their own communities. 

Emily Gore, director of digital content for Digital Public Library of America, described today's digital tsunami of information as "drinking from a fire hose," but said that libraries have a role in helping citizens and communities shape, narrow, and direct the stream of digital content so that it's personalized for their own needs.

The challenge for libraries is the speed with which technology is changing. But moderator Robin Reiter stressed that the new digital world is "an opportunity for librarians to be on the front end of what they want this to look like, before someone else decides for you."

Librarians of all stripes are leading this effort to stay in front of what changing digital technologies mean for their communities, but Clark emphasized that they can't do it alone—these issues involve publishers, authors, readers and many other stakeholders.

One of the biggest digital concerns for public libraries right now is providing access to e-books. Pat Losinski pointed to the importance of this issue, saying that e-book sales for adult titles outstripped print book sales for the first time last year, yet e-book checkouts account for only about 2 to 3 percent of circulations in the average public library. Public libraries are eager to purchase and lend e-books; the problem is that major publishers have been hesitant to provide libraries access to them.

Pat Losinski said that after working to bridge the technological divide for years, public libraries now need to start figuring out how to fight the "content divide." The library's mission to acquire and lend hasn't shifted with the proliferation of digital materials; what's changed is digital publishers' belief that they can shut libraries out from that content. Publishers may want users to purchase e-books directly, but it's still the library's mission to try to provide everyone with access, regardless of means.

The American Library Association's Digital Content and Libraries Working Group has been tackling this issue, beginning with a series of meetings with the "big six" publishers last year. Clark explained that the dialogue with publishers came from a realization that librarians didn't understand publishers' motivations around e-books any more than publishers understood what libraries and patrons want on the issue. The conversations revealed that librarians and publishers are both wrestling with the same question of what a book will look like in the future—how we'll find it, how we'll use it, and how we'll create it. It was only through collaboration and conversation—initiated by the library community - that librarians and publishers were able to start finding paths forward on the issue.

The digital environment is changing the role of libraries and pushing librarians to think of their mission as going beyond just building collections to actually creating community on a larger scale. Toby Graham described this potential, saying that digital content and technologies open up the possibilities for libraries and allow librarians to bring their previously siloed community "campfires" together to "create one heck of a flame."

By Annie Schutte, a librarian, teacher and consultant for Knight Foundation