Libraries & The Digital Age

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Despite the ease of information provided by technology, libraries are still important means of curating knowledge.
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"Biblotech" by John Palfrey examines the history of modern libraries and the continued need for these structures in the digital age.

BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015) by John Palfrey examines the need for brick and mortar libraries in a day when we can look up the answer to just about anything from the device in our pocket. Palfrey argues that libraries provide the needed guides, guidance and curators to navigate the knowledge and information of our complex world. This excerpt comes from the introduction, examining the history of the Boston Public Library and the changing importance of libraries over the last century. 

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In 1852, Joshua Bates wanted to help the city of Boston start the first major public library in the world. Bates, businessman and civic-minded citizen, had a few conditions in mind. The library, he wrote, ought “to be an ornament to the city.” It should have a capacious reading room, one that could accommodate 100 to 150 readers at a time. And most important, the library was to be “perfectly free to all.” If the trustees of this new institution agreed with the conditions set forth in his letter, Bates was happy to provide $50,000 to buy the books.


With the help of Bates and other donors, the Boston Public Library (BPL) became the first library to allow any citizen of a major city in the United States to borrow books and materials. This idea seems obvious today; in 1852 it was radical. Libraries had existed for thousands of years, of course. Early libraries, such as the Library of Alexandria in present-day Egypt, served very small communities of readers, ordinarily people associated with a monastery or a court. The Bodleian Library at Oxford University opened to scholars in 1602. Private libraries — including the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, and the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807 just down the street from the new BPL — allowed the well-to-do to share books with one another. But it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that a big city opened a library to all its citizens. To commemorate the spirit of this new library, and with a nod to Mr. Bates and his gift, three words were inscribed above the main door to the Boston Public Library’s iconic main building: Free to All.

The free municipal public library in America has spread far and wide from its roots in Boston’s Copley Square. Free public libraries cropped up quickly across the young country, from the town of Woburn in the Boston suburbs to small towns in New York State. The plan for the massive New York Public Library, in the heart of Manhattan, came together in 1895. The philanthropist Andrew Carnegie took this idea across the country when he offered to pay for the construction of public libraries in any town that would meet a few conditions. By 1917, Carnegie had promised to build 1,679 libraries in 1,412 towns across America. Carnegie sought to establish town libraries that were free, ubiquitous, and accessible to those who shared his own character traits: industry, ambition, and eagerness to learn.

Today every major city in the United States and most cities around the world have a public library system devoted to making knowledge broadly accessible. Most other free countries also have extensive public library systems. As in America, public libraries spread across Britain during the middle of the nineteenth century, especially after Parliament passed the Public Libraries Act 1850. (A handful of public libraries had already been established in Europe — including Chetham’s Library in Manchester, England; the Saulieu Library in France; and the Zaluski Library in Warsaw, Poland — several claiming to be the first town to offer a public library.) Travel just about anywhere today and you will see that books, magazines, and DVDs — along with much more — are freely available to anyone with a library card. The town center of nearly every community has a library, with story hours for children, tax forms and voter registration materials for new citizens, and caring librarians who welcome everyone to a safe space on a hot day. In the United States, thousands of these libraries look the same, inspired by the original Carnegie library designs, a comforting fixture of American small-town life. 

But in the digital era, the classic public library is long overdue for an update. The original design of libraries — a glorified storehouses for books and manuscripts and pleasant places to read them — no longer suffices. People have many more options today to get access to knowledge. The job of librarians is changing under their feet in this new world.

The Boston Public Library is no different. For starters, the library’s space needs to change. In 1972 the BPL added a new building, designed by famed architect Philip Johnson. At the time the Johnson building was hailed as a triumph of modern design. Today, however, it feels hulking and impersonal, the product of a distant era — one in which library design apparently did not focus much on the experience of human beings. The Johnson building did little to convey the grand and open spirit of the original McKim building, the historic front door to the Boston Public Library. The McKim building evokes awe and wonder as the visitor enters its grand entryway.
Inside, the visitor is greeted by John Singer Sargent’s mural sequence: painted over a thirty-year period, Triumph of Religion reaches toward the heavens. To the visitor entering the library from Boylston Street instead of from Copley Square, the entrance to the Johnson building sends quite a different signal — utilitarian, at the most generous.

In 2012 the library’s director, Amy Ryan, and her colleagues Michael Colford, Gina Perille, and Beth Prindle decided to do something about the Johnson building. They set about the business of remaking it by asking Boston residents what they thought needed to change. The response from the public was revealing — and damning. Some people said the Johnson building was so confusing that they “couldn’t find a book to read.” Others reported that the space was not welcoming to young people — the demographic in Boston, as in many communities, most likely to need and use the library. The layout was confusing and disjointed. Spaces devoted to the materials that patrons most wanted to use, and perhaps borrow, were set back too far inside the large building, behind a maze of walls. The message sent by the architecture was not one that Ryan wanted patrons to receive — it did not signal a welcoming and vibrant space. The BPL leaders knew they couldn’t afford to ignore such clear feedback.

Ryan and her team of librarians and architects — this time from William Rawn Associates — came up with an exciting design for a new public library that has galvanized public support. This new design makes the impersonal Johnson building much more inviting and connected to the surrounding community. Floor-to-ceiling windows will transform the space from one with a warehouse feeling to one that draws people into the building from the sidewalk. The BPL’s redesign calls for a teen-friendly digital media lab that will allow young people to read books, do their homework, hang out, and make things. It will also have a space for tween readers who may feel too young to use the teen space. An early childhood center will be stocked with developmentally appropriate toys as well as books, music, and other materials. Fiction, movies, and music will be brought closer to the entryway — historically a cold, empty space — for adult patrons to browse. A coffee cart will attract those in need of a dose of caffeine.

The city threw its weight behind the redesign. Boston’s longtime mayor Thomas Menino pledged that money would be there for the renovation. Sure enough, the city council approved $16 million for the first phase of work. Under equally strong leadership from the next mayor, Marty Walsh, the next $60 million followed in 2014. The city of Boston has rallied around its library and is doubling down as the BPL overhauls itself for a new era.

In addition to the redesign of its main building, the Boston Public Library has been busily remaking its other services. New branches in neighborhoods around the city another innovation that the BPL brought to the world of libraries — have been added to the system. Through a project called the Digital Commonwealth, the BPL is home to a digitization project that is bringing images, books, maps, and manuscripts to the web from every corner of the state and preserving them for posterity. Photos of small-town high school girls’ basketball teams are now as easily available online as photos of a glamorous professional tennis star who grew up in Boston. These images are now a click away for those looking into the history of gender equity or for the relatives of the high school athletes. A series of local historical maps of Gloucester and of the state of Massachusetts show changes in the fishing industry over time and their effects on the lives of coastal residents. It would have been impossible for any one city or town to bring these digital materials to life; a collaborative effort, led by the BPL and its partners, has created a new library model for the nation, one that combines the physical with the virtual.

The Boston Public Library is a great example of a major modern library embracing its future. Even the BPL’s inspiring efforts are only the beginning of what will be possible when libraries seize the opportunities of the networked digital age. Nevertheless, the BPL’s leaders and all others seeking to reinvent libraries for the future are also working against some powerful headwinds.

Libraries are at risk because we have forgotten how essential they are. In the era of Google and Amazon, those with means can access information with greater ease and speed than ever before. As a consequence, in cities and towns across the world the same debate rages each year when budget time rolls around: What’s the purpose of a library in a digital age? Put more harshly, why should we spend tax dollars, in tough economic times, on a library when our readers can instantly get so much of what they need and want from the Internet? As the bulk of funding for police, fire departments, and schools — all necessary services — has become the responsibility of state and local governments, municipal leaders have been forced to ask a question that library supporters aren’t prepared to answer: are libraries necessary?

We keep having this debate because we have a very simplistic and skewed idea of why libraries matter. For most of us, libraries are good for one thing: getting information. But most information today can be readily accessed in digital form, through computers or smartphones. How many times recently have you had a debate with a friend, only to resolve the dispute within seconds simply by pulling out a mobile device and looking up the answer? Most of the information that we need in our day-to-day lives can now be found in both analog (meaning “physical”) form and digital form. Most of the time, the digital variants can be accessed by anyone, easily and quickly, from anywhere, using a mobile device. Acquiring the physical variants often require more effort — an actual trip to the library, for instance.

The point is not that books, magazines, and DVDs are dead — far from it. At places such as the redesigned Boston Public Library, popular publications and media materials in physical form circulate rapidly from prominent spaces close to the building’s entrance. The point is that people’s information habits have undergone a sea change — a major shift toward the digital. Libraries are trying to serve a wide range of patrons at many different points along an “adoption curve,” with all-print at one end and all-digital at the other. A related shift is also under way: libraries must increasingly compete with commercial establishments that offer free wireless Internet access and a place to gather, such as Starbucks. In the midst of all this change, libraries of all sizes and types are forced to make the case for their own relevance. The problem is that libraries need to provide both physical materials and spaces as well as state-of-the-art digital access and services.

Our views about what libraries offer are firmly entrenched, which makes the task before library supporters even harder. If most knowledge is accessible in digital formats, on devices that can be carried anywhere, what is the purpose of a traditional library collection of books, journals, magazines, movies, and music? If the Internet is the primary access point for this information, what is the purpose of preserving physical spaces where people can come to find it? If libraries are nothing more than community centers in cities and towns and on college campuses, then what do we need librarians for? Put in negative terms: Are libraries and librarians anachronistic in a digital age? Who, after all, are they serving, and how?

Libraries are more than community centers, just as librarians do more than answer questions you could easily ask Google. From the opening of the BPL, the first public library, to the expansion of public libraries across America through the Carnegie libraries, the library as an institution has been fundamental to the success of our democracy. Libraries provide access to the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill our roles as active citizens. Libraries also function as essential equalizing institutions in our society. For as long as a library exists in most communities, staffed with trained librarians, it remains true that individuals’ access to our shared culture is not dictated by however much money they have.

For many citizens, libraries are the one place where the information they need to be engaged in civic life is truly available for free, requiring nothing more than the time to walk into a branch. The reading room of a public library is the place where a daily newspaper, a weekly newsmagazine, and a documentary film are all available for free. In many communities, the library’s public lecture room is the only place to hear candidates for office comparing points of view or visiting professors explaining their work on climate change, immigration, or job creation. That same room is often the one place where a child from a family without a lot of money can go to see a dramatic reading or a production of a Shakespeare play. (Another of these simple realities in most communities is that a big part of public librarians’ job is to figure out how to host the community’s homeless in a safe and fair manner.) Democracies can work only if all citizens have equal access to information and culture that can help them make good choices, whether at the voting booth or in other aspects of public life.

Libraries, then, are core democratic institutions today just as they were in the nineteenth century. The knowledge that libraries offer and the help that librarians provide are the lifeblood of an informed and engaged republic. This role for libraries is just as important in big cities like Boston and New York as it is in every small town in every democracy. From the rise of the public library system in late-nineteenth-century America, libraries have been the place where any citizen could go to pursue his or her own interests, free of cost.

The disappearance of libraries as we know them would affect the way our children are educated — for the worse. It would undercut the ability of immigrants to any free country to adjust well to a new system, find jobs, and join the ranks of literate working-class and middle-class citizens. Libraries provide public spaces where people can congregate, share their common cultural and scientific heritage, and create knowledge. Librarians, along with archivists, maintain the historical record of our societies and our lives. By failing to invest in libraries during this time of transition away from the analog and toward the digital, we are putting all these essential functions at risk just when we need them most.

The path forward for libraries and librarians is not mysterious. Visionary leaders like Amy Ryan and her team at the Boston Public Library are charting the way forward. A reinvestment effort by Siobhan Reardon at the Free Library of Philadelphia has resulted in a $25 million grant to reimagine her city’s library. Many other librarians — in school libraries, universities, and special libraries, at technology companies and nonprofits — are likewise showing the way. The key is very simple: to focus on what digital media and the Internet make possible, not on what they undo. This perspective enables library supporters to find and exploit the ways in which the digital and the analog come together, where they reinforce one another. The Internet and digital media are enabling new kinds of services that make a real difference for all library users: for instance, librarians can find, at no cost interactive materials ranging from original historical documents to the notes from recent city hall meetings. Physical libraries have never been more vital, interesting, useful places. The people who work in libraries are helping other people make sense of the overwhelming mass of information online—and making it immediately relevant to their lives.

We need both physical libraries and digital libraries today. Physical spaces and digital platforms will both play an essential role in providing access to knowledge in democracies around the world in the near future. If we don’t maintain physical libraries, we will lose essential public, intellectual spaces in our communities, places where people can meet face-to-face, and if we don’t build digital libraries connected to them, those physical spaces may become obsolete as big companies such as Google and Amazon increasingly meet our need for knowledge. Physical and digital libraries are interdependent: each can make the other more effective an valuable.

Excerpted fromBiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Googleby John Palfrey. Copyright © 2015. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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