7 May 2015

21st Century Libraries

I recently received a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Library Association annual conference. In my application, I was asked to imagine that I was looking through a powerful telescope at a distant planet inhabited by an advanced alien race and describe their libraries. Here’s part of what I wrote:

I see a great diversity of libraries. Tiny libraries serving communities of less than a thousand and giant libraries serving nations of millions. Virtual libraries serving billions. I see libraries that are silent and libraries that are loud, and both hum with activity. I see libraries that are housed in treasured landmarks, their buildings telling as many stories as the materials they contain. And other libraries, in plain, inexpensive buildings whose patrons come daily, working to re-write their own stories.

Some libraries have laboratories where patrons experiment and build and break and fix and learn by doing rather than just by reading. Other libraries do not. Some libraries have books. Other libraries do not.

The libraries I see – including the library tucked into the corner of a subway station and the library taking up ten city blocks – are diverse because they match the needs of their communities, and their communities are diverse.

I intended this piece as a mild criticism of the idea most commonly expressed via the term “21st century library.” I have two objections to this term. The first - which I did not discuss in my application - has to do with precision of language: all libraries today are 21st century libraries, and have been for 15 years. When people use the term “21st century library,” they mean something more than “a library that exists between the years 2000 and 2099.” I think they mean a modern library, or a successful library, or a top library. We need a new term. Give some suggestions in the comment section.

My second objection has to do with the meaning behind “21st century library.” It seems to me that use of this term suggests a homogenous understanding of libraries. Some examples even read like the author is suggesting that there is a single 21st century library:

"In the age of e-books and online content, what's the role of the 21st century library?" (Source - emphasis mine)

"[T]he 21st century library is competing with numerous web-based resources." (Source - emphasis mine)

“[This book] provides an up-to-date picture of what the public library is today… the library [has] reinvented and repositioned itself [since the latter half of the 20th century.” (Source - emphasis mine)

Now certainly, the authors of these examples do not think that there is literally only one library (although, with interlibrary loan, participating libraries do function, in a sense, as a single global library, but that’s another blog post).

But I think it’s fair to suggest that when we talk about the 21st century library (or, less objectionably, about 21st century libraries) we are implying that there are certain traits that successful libraries have: flexibility, simplicity, patron-centeredness, collaborativeness, technological sophistication, etc.

I disagree with this implication. There are “21st century libraries” that are struggling. And there are “20th century libraries” (perhaps even “19th century libraries”) that are successful.

I have a single criterion for successful libraries: a successful library must meet the needs of its community. That’s it. For some libraries, that may mean maker stations, online courses, and circulating ukuleles. For others, it may mean a silent room filled with books. And that’s okay. Our world, like the alien world I explored in my application, is diverse, and so are its libraries.


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