I’m not really interested in public library professionally. However, they’ve always been important to me. And, like everyone, I have opinions on what they are doing right and wrong. Libraries, as we all know, are the last to adopt cultural movements. And a big one they’ve been missing is the movement of America away from culture as consumption.
What does that mean? Well the burst of web 2.0, really the internet as a whole, has really been an explosion in culture as participation. Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer and expert on copyright and media in the internet age, in a recent interview on Fresh Air explains how the internet has created an explosion in participation. People remix music, put videos to song, and so on. If you listen, fast forward to about minute 30 where they discuss John Philip Sousa. Sousa testified before congress at the beginning of the 20th century against recordable media. Before, people would stand on the porch and play the songs of the day or past favorites where now, he says, all you hear are records.
An irrational fear of technology? Maybe. But Sousa, Lessig explains, was a champion of the amateur and now the time of the amateur is returning. Culture is becoming less of a thing you consume and more of a creation, a process. It’s been art and media too. Make magazine and the website Instructables have been leaders of the DIY movement of the web and encourage everything from furniture building to reprogramming gameboys.
So what about the libraries? Well, the libraries have been stuck in a mode of culture as consumption. Patrons walk into the library. They check out books/CDs/DVDs/etc. they leave. They go home. Enjoy what they have. Repeat.
Compare this with academic libraries. The material is, mostly, there to be used. To be integrated, studied, compared, criticized (with the unfortunate highlighting that follows) and so on. The librarians help students (and staff and faculty) find material. They are involved actively in the use of materials. It is no surprise that the largest recent change in libraries has been the increase in instruction.
Now, think about the most popular and loved part of public libraries. What is the single program that will guarantee the continuing existence of public libraries. Of course I am talking about story hour. But the story is the only part that connects with the library as it is known to adults. At story hour what happens?
- -They read a story
-They sing a song
-Make a craft
-Play a game
In other words, they participate. And the adult programs? Book discussions. Come on. A large. Large LARGE part of the library’s collection is instructional non-fiction. There are books on crafts, sports, business, travel. These will never find themselves in a book club, but we have them. Why aren’t they used to engage patrons. Why do libraries not organize knitting instruction or workshops on foreign travel. Fantasy sports would be a piece of cake to organize. At best libraries let community groups to come in and do these things. But what do we do to tap into this new desire to participate? Libraries contain information to aid people with these hobbies or chores, why not take it a step further and invite the participation inside.