January 12th, 2009

What should a modern library be?

Last week, Ed Tettemer (formerly of Red Tettemer) gathered together a group of people for a charette to rethink the Free Library of Philadelphia's website.

A little back story is probably necessary. Ed and I met last year as members of Mayor Nutter's transition committee for the rebranding of Philadelphia. (Yes, Ed and I seem to do a lot of re-ing.) Nothing really seemed to be making sense in this effort until Ed and I hit upon this idea of Open Source as the brand and also as the mind-set for Philadelphia's new administration.

With this in mind, Ed brought together a group of people from various interactive and branding agencies, as well as, entrepeneurs and members of the Free Library staff and board to openly discuss, in a blue sky way, the future of the website. As part of the backdrop for our conversation, it was pointed out that the library is in the process of fundraising for a new addition (see above) to house:

a Children's Library with a Preschool Center and a Craft Room; a first-ever Teen Center; a new 550-seat auditorium; two new Internet Browsing Centers, outfitted with 300 public-access computers; a new Business Department, with presentation space, online resources and a complete curriculum in business development; and a soaring, glass-enclosed pavilion with shops, a cafe and ample space for community gatherings."

Instantly, our task changed (in my mind, at least) to be more of a rethinking of what a modern library should become.

Admittedly, I was looking for an excuse to open up the dialogue (as my Twitter post from the day before the session indicates), but nonetheless, I jumped at the opportunity.

Taking a step back, I believe that the post-World War II government-supplemented higher education system that has its origins in the funds of the GI Bill of Rights to be financially unsustainable. Not only that, I think that higher education is becoming less relevant to many people. I come across more and more college drop-outs or those that never attended college working in high tech and traditional white collar jobs. While I appreciate my college experience, I see it as almost a finishing school (in its best sense), and not a job training center.

As colleges become more expensive and government support continues to dwindle, it makes it harder and harder for the average person to take on that expense. (Keep in mind we are talking about graduating with debts in excess of $100,000.) However, the need to be educated has not diminished.

What better institution to fill this gap be than a place like the Free Library of Philadelphia?

If one accepts that conceit that a well-informed populace is vital to the operation of a democracy and considering that Ben Franklin founded the first lending library in North America here in Philadelphia then it is very compelling for the Free Library to be a place that embodies the future of education. (At minimum it makes for a very good story.)

And, I don't mean as simply a resource (a.k.a. repository) to supplement education pursuits. The library should be a center for learning. In many ways, what I am proposing is an old fashioned idea. I would like the library to be a place of peer learning, apprenticing and mentoring. I am inspired by "unconferences" or open conferences like BarCamp where the attendees lead the sessions. There are no predetermined speakers. It is a great example of peer learning. The library can be the physical place that houses these sessions in an on-going way. Barcamps are usually only a day or two. This type of learning and sharing needs a home if it is to be an effective as a learning hub.

So back to the original point of the charette. What should role should the website of the Free Library play in this scenario?

I want to answer that question in a future post, but let me seed it with this quote from Mark Pesce's essay Inflection Points:

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

Technology can be used to coordinate the logistics of this information exchange in the library of the future.

I will expand on this idea in my next post.

To be continued!


Update: The continued post on what a modern library website should be is now live.
Check out another article
January 8th, 2009
The Invention of Air
January 7th, 2009