Remember when the internet came along and everyone wondered whether there would still be a use for libraries? Oddly, just as the question was being called, in the early 2000s there was a building boom of new libraries around North America. And public libraries didn’t die, they flourished, many reinventing themselves as community centers for the 21st Century.
The idea of a public library is a powerful one. Libraries have played an important role in our culture, with two primary functions. They have been repositories of knowledge, but just as important is their role in sharing that knowledge. They have been critical in democratizing access to information.
The internet can be seen as a kind of ultimate public library, with infinite stacks of information and hundreds of millions of librarians/users willing to curate, mix and share what they find. Access and sharing.
If the wonder of the original internet was that it gave us access to the world’s information, its real power started to become apparent when it connected us not just to information but to each other and to one another’s networks. Dynamic networks of networks are infinitely more powerful than static information.
So what’s the next, more powerful version of the traditional library? The New York Public Library has an idea:
“I think of libraries as being full of many pieces of culture that are reassembled to create new forms of culture,” Shana Kimball, manager of public programs and outreach for NYPL Labs, told Hyperallergic, noting that the library has long been “a platform for creation” to inspire all forms of written, visual, performing, and now digital art. “I think that’s absolutely a trajectory of the library, we should be a set of resources that people can use for new forms of creation that are contemporary, and ones we haven’t even thought about yet.”
The NYPL has put 180,000 images in the public domain online and invited visitors to use, remix and share them, essentially creating new work. Art and ideas are built on the culture that comes before it. By giving people access to its images and suggesting that that access doesn’t just stop with viewing the work but includes potential reuse as raw material, the NYPL escalates the public library’s traditional role of lender of physical books and sharer of the ephemerality of ideas to being a more active, potentially more interactive partner.
In the old version of a library, access was limited by one’s ability to see inside. It’s difficult to know what you’re looking for if you don’t know it exists. By empowering new armies of curators/librarians and giving them the power and incentive to share and remix, the collections become suddenly more visible and more useful.
So in the new vision, NYPL becomes not merely the connector of information to people but the facilitator of users who are sifting “many pieces of culture that are reassembled to create new forms of culture.”
We live in a time when people define themselves by what they share. They increasingly have expectations that they should be able to share whatever they encounter. Libraries are in the business of sharing. But the collections inside their walls, no matter how vast, are now smaller than what anyone with an internet connection has access to. So what will make libraries stand out in the infinitely shareable world? The NYPL is using its assets to position itself as an aggregator of information AND its audience of active users to be a much more powerful version of the traditional library. NYPL has realized that its real power isn’t so much in the collections that it controls but in the users it can empower.