Peter Brantley tells a sad tale about where public library leadership is at, as we plunge headlong into the ebook future, that has been talked about for what seems like forever, and which is now upon us. It’s not pretty.

The general consensus among participants was that public libraries have two, maybe three years to establish their relevance in the digital realm, or risk fading from the central place they have long occupied in the world’s literary culture.

The fact that a bunch of big-wigs invited by IFLA were seemingly unable to find inspiration and reason to hope that public libraries will continue to exist is not surprising in the least I guess. I’m not sure that libraries were ever the center of the world’s literary culture. But for the sake of argument lets assume they were, and that now they’re increasingly not. Let us also assume that the economic landscape around ebooks is in incredible turmoil, and that there will continue to be sea changes in technologies, and people’s use of them in this area for the foreseeable future.

What can libraries do to stay relevant? I think part of the answer is: stop being libraries…well, sorta.

The HyperLocal

The most serious threat facing libraries does not come from publishers, we argued, but from e-book and digital media retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Google. While some IFLA staff protested that libraries are not in the business of competing with such companies, the library representatives stressed that they are. If public libraries can’t be better than Google or Amazon at something, then libraries will lose their relevance.

In my mind the thing that libraries have to offer, which these big corporations cannot, is authentic, local context for information about a community’s past, present and future. But in the past century or so libraries have focused on collecting mass produced objects, and sharing data about said objects. The mission of collecting hyper-local information has typically been a side task, that has fallen to special collections and archives. If I were invited to that IFLA meeting I would’ve said that libraries need to shift their orientation to caring more about the practices of archives and manuscript collections, by collecting unique, valued, at risk local materials, and adapting collection development and descriptive practices to the realities of more and more of this information being available as data.

As Mark Matienzo indicated (somewhat indirectly in Twitter) after I published this blog post, a lot of this work involves focusing less on hoarding items like books, and focusing more on the functions, services, and actions that public libraries want to document and engage with in their communities. Traditionally this orientation has been a strength area for archivists in their practice and theory of appraisal where:

… considerations … include how to meet the record-granting body’s organizational needs, how to uphold requirements of organizational accountability (be they legal, institutional, or determined by archival ethics), and how to meet the expectations of the record-using community. Wikipedia

I think this represents a pretty significant cognitive shift for library professionals, and would in fact take some doing. But perhaps that’s just because my exposure to archival theory in “library school” was pretty pathetic. Be that as it may here are some practical examples of growth areas for public libraries that I wish came up at the IFLA meeting.

Web Archiving

The Internet Archive and national libraries that are part of the International Internet Preservation Consortium don’t have the time, resources and often mandate to collect web content that are of interest at the local level. What if the tooling and expertise existed for public libraries to perform some of this work, and to have the results fed into larger aggregations of web archives?

Municipality Reports and Data

Increasing amounts of data are being collected as part of the daily working of our local governments. What if your public library had the resources to be a repository for this data? Yeah, I said the R word. But I’m not suggesting that public libraries get the expertise to set up Fedora instances with Hydra heads, or something. I’m thinking about approaches to allowing data to easily flow into an organization, where it is backed up, and made available in a clearinghouse manner similar to on the Web, for search engines to pick up. Perhaps even services like LibraryBox offer another lens to look at the opportunities that lie in this area.

Born Digital Manuscript Collections

Public libraries should be aggressively collecting the “papers” of local people who have had significant contributions to their communities. Increasingly, these aren’t paper at all, but are born digital content. For example: email correspondence, document archives, digital photograph collections. I think that librarians and archivists know, in theory, that this born digital content is out there, but the reality is it’s not flowing into the public library/archive. How can we change this? Efforts such as Personal Digital Archiving are important for two reasons: they help set up the right conditions for born digital collections to be donated, and they also make professionals think about how they would like to receive materials so that they are easier to process. Think more things like AIMS, training and tooling for both professionals and citizens.


It’s not unusual for archives and special collections to have all sorts of donor gift agreements that place restrictions on how their donated materials can be used. To some extent needing to visit the collection, request it, and not being able to leave the room with it, has mitigated some of this special-snowflakism. But when things are online things change a bit. We need to normalize these agreements so that content can flow online, and be used online in clearer ways. What if we got donors to think about Creative Commons licenses when they donated materials? How can we make sure donated material can become a usable part of the Web


We all know that things come and go on the Web. But it doesn’t need to be that way for everything on the Web. Libraries and archives have an opportunity to show how focusing on being a clearninghouse for data assets can allow for things to live persistently on the Web. Thinking about our URLs as identifiers for things we are taking care of is important. Practical strategies for achieving that are possible, and repeatable. What if public libraries were safe harbors for local content on the World Wide Web? This might sound hard to do, but I think it’s not as hard as people think.


As libraries/archives make more local content available publicly on the Web it becomes important to track how this content is accessed and used online. Quick wins like Web analytics tools (Google Analytics) for seeing what is being accessed and from where. Seeing how content is cited in social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Wikipedia is important for reporting on the value of online collections. But encouraging professionals to use this information to become part of the conversations is equally important. Good metrics are also essential for collection development purposes, seeing what content is of interest, and what is not.

Inside Out Libraries

So, no I don’t think public libraries need a new open source Overdrive. The ebook market will likely continue to take care of itself. I also am not really convinced we need some overarching organization like the Digital Public Library of America to serve as a single point of failure when the funding runs dry. We need distributed strategies for documenting our local communities, so that this information can take its rightful place on the Web, and be picked up by Google so that people can find it when they are on the other side of the world. Things will definitely keep changing, but I think libraries and archives need to invest in the Web as an enduring delivery platform for information.

I’ve never been before but I was so excited to read the call for the European Library Automation Group (ELAG) this year.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘The INSIDE-OUT Library’. This theme was chosen at last year’s conference, because we concluded:

  • Libraries have been focusing on bringing the world to their users. Now information is globally available.
  • Libraries have been producing metadata for the same publications in parallel. Now they are faced with deduplicating redundancy.
  • Libraries have been selecting things for their users. Now the users select things themselves.
  • Libraries have been supporting users by indexing things locally. Now everything is being indexed in global, shared indexes.

Instead of being an OUTSIDE-IN library, libraries should try and stay relevant by shifting their paradigm 180 degrees. Instead of only helping users to find what is available globally, they should also focus on making local collections and production available to the world. Instead of doing the same thing everywhere, libraries should focus on making unique information accessible. Instead of focusing on information trapped in publications, libraries should try and give the world new views on knowledge.

This blog post is really just a somewhat shabby rephrasing of that call. Maybe IFLA could use some of the folks on the ELAG program commmittee at their next meeting about the future of public libraries? Hopefully 2013 will be a year I can make it to ELAG.

I expect public libraries will continue to exist, but there isn’t going to be some magical technical solution to their problems. Their future will be forged by each local relationship they make, which leads to them better documenting their place on the Web. We may not call these places public libraries at first, but that’s what they will be.