Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries

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Public libraries are undergoing huge changes in the shift from analog to digital media. Some large city libraries have hired digital strategists to help them take appropriate steps in this transition. Smaller or poorer libraries don't have the benefit of having a full-time staff person working on the transition. To keep those libraries from falling behind, it makes sense to devise a national plan for this transition – a plan that will unfold in increments over the next ten years. With such a plan in place, libraries – and the communities they serve – will have a good idea of where their own libraries are in the transition.

Truth is, nobody really knows what public libraries will look like in 2020. That doesn't stop us from imagining how they could best serve the community in the digital age. And the time for having conversations about that topic is now. We can't wait until 2015 to discuss these kinds of things.

At the heart of a National Library Transition Plan is a broad understanding of the core purposes of public libraries. Yes, public libraries are about books, but they are also about so much more than books.

Consider the oldest public library in Ohio, the Dayton Public Library, founded in 1805. At that time, Dayton was a very small town – with probably fewer than 500 residents. (In 1820, Dayton's population was 1000.) With a population smaller than some modern apartment buildings, the town of Dayton, Ohio, set up a public library in 1805. About 90 years later two youngsters from Dayton walked into that library and started reading magazine articles about people in other countries who were attempting to build a flying machine. The Wright Brothers were voracious readers. I can picture them sitting at the library thumbing through magazines. The Dayton Public Library might have been where they read about German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, whose gliding experiments inspired their own.

So it's no small coincidence that the first public library in Ohio happened to be located in the same town where airplanes were invented. Libraries are about books, but they're also about much more than books. They're about ideas and invention and imagination and play and curiosity and wonder and hope. Yes, libraries are all about hope. They are houses of possibilities.

Whenever a new public library is being planned, community members are invited to a brainstorming session to answer the question, “What would you like to see at your public library?” That's a great starting point, but it should not be an ending point. People in any community may or may not be able to fully articulate all their needs. Nor may they understand the new kinds of library services being made possible in the digital age. Any community earnestly planning their new public library ought to be seeking the best ideas from both near and far.

And in designing future public libraries, we do need to turn to the wisdom and insights of architects. Architects need to design public libraries for purposes we haven't imagined yet. In other words, public libraries of the future need to be immensely flexible in how their space is used. Probably all furniture needs to be on wheels. Meeting rooms will need exterior doors, so they can be used when the library is closed.

Then again, maybe public libraries should never be closed. In an information-based economy where knowledge workers drive almost all innovation, shouldn't the public knowledge place be open seven days a week? If 7-Eleven and FedEx Office and McDonald’s can stay open 24 hours a day, is it not possible for libraries to do so, too? This might seem like a pipe dream under current budget challenges, but maybe we don't need to live within the boundaries of those challenges. Where there is a will, there is a way.

New ideas create new jobs. Public libraries create new ideas. Public libraries are places where ideas are remixed. How can we facilitate more and better remixing of ideas in public libraries? Do we need to design hacker spaces to be part of future public libraries? What if the Dayton Public Library had a “tinkerer's room” set up as part of the library and that anyone in the community could submit a proposal for possible uses of the tinkerer's room? Well, in 1901, the Wright Brothers might have used that room to set up their first wind tunnel. And they would have invited other community members to see their thinking and to contribute their own ideas to the conquest of flight. The great moment of insight, the day when the Wright Brothers understood that wing warping was the secret to flight, could have been a shared community moment – right there at the public library.

I'd sure be interested in knowing the names of the people who founded the original Dayton Public Library, back in 1805. They set in motion a culture of curiosity that culminated in the invention of the airplane. And that culture of curiosity exists to this very day in Dayton. Are we doing enough to uncover and encourage it?

Here's what we need to think about in 2010 as we embark upon the journey of digital public libraries. What can we set in motion today that might bear fruit in 2020, 2030, 2040, and 2050? How can we extend the traditional role of public libraries, giving access to books and magazines, in whole new ways? Is the purpose of public libraries to celebrate the human imagination in all ways? Is the purpose of public libraries to enable self-education in a solitary way or in a communal way – or both? What can we expect to happen if our nation does not have a national transition plan for public libraries?

Interestingly, some of the boldest thinking about library transitions is happening outside of public libraries – in school and academic libraries. How can changes in public libraries best be integrated with the changes coming to school and academic libraries? What happens when there is dissonance between these different libraries? What are the economic and cultural advantages of having better integration among them?

The questions surrounding the transition from analog to digital libraries are many and sometimes difficult. We would do well to address these sooner rather than later. A national library transition plan is sorely needed. Such a plan need not be written in stone, but it does need to be written.

If nothing else, such a plan will be a starting point for further conversations on this important topic.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

To stay in the loop about some of the most interesting thinking about libraries, follow Janie Hermann, David Lee King, Buffy J. Hamilton and R.D. Lankes on Twitter.

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