This week and next week in the newsletter we’re talking about the development of the public library system in the US. We’re tracking the evolution of private library clubs to “palaces for the people,” with an eye towards how we can build a social infrastructure like the library system on the internet. So we’re asking you:
If you love your library, please tell us about it and the role it plays in your life and in your community. As you navigate through your digital communities and daily online rituals, do you see any overlap? How can we build spaces online that, as libraries can, encourage you to be the best version of yourself?
We are assuming that you, like us, are looking for more flourishing places on the internet. We want this to be one of those places! Please treat others with openness, generosity and respect.
When I think about the importance of the library in my community, I think about its location. My library is across from the largest park in Brooklyn and the area around it is a nexus of diverse people, vendors, activities, information, culture, and entertainment. It's a place where everyone can go for all kinds of of civic and general stuff. It all contributes to everyone's wellbeing and much of it is free. I would love a place like that on the internet. - Joi
I love how physical libraries enable learning albeit at times with limited opportunities for social and experiential learning depending on the location. I would go to my childhood local library and pull a stack of books from the shelves, and get lost in novels sitting in the corner. I think this is where digital libraries could shine, creating spaces for discussion, questioning and synthesis. I'm imagining collaborative annotation, data visualization and embodiment of research and knowledge, and storytelling infrastructure to weave new narratives. I see digital libraries as spaces moving from knowledge consumption to wisdom generation, a key component of imagination infrastructure.
It feels like magic every time my children and I enter the library, welcomed. We browse without hurry, follow our curiosities and borrow without restraint. There is peace in the coming and going.
The public library is one of the few places that hits the right note of what it means to create a sense (or space) of belonging: It’s a combination of how it's designed, the people in it, and the unspoken rules and behaviors associated with it. The library, for me, was an incredible safe haven during a difficult time in my childhood and I remember there was no shame and no embarrassment that I often carried everywhere else -- the moment I walked into those doors there was always just an incredible amount of empathetic dignity and an open invitation to be. I wish more places, especially online, could embody what the library offers. Perhaps leaning more into trauma informed design could be a good start.
In college, I enjoyed running into friends at the library. In an internet library, it'd be cool to be able to see who else is browsing for the same information as you, and have a way to generate a meaningful interaction from that.
The libraries near me do SO much. There is a fabrication section with a 3d printer, a tool library to rent and learn how to use a tool for your project, and a sewing section too!
They are also invaluable for connecting people to services! Lending out computers, helping apply to jobs or write resumes. A general place for anyone to come in and rest and warm up. The internet has not a whole lot of places to just chill. There is always so many things in your face all the time. If you have a learning disability, or are uncomfortable with a computer, it's hard to know what to do then go to the usual places. A community room or pen pal system would be so cool.
I love seeing the storytimes for kids, and i just love looking through the stacks. Finding strange foreign films that I wouldn't have seen before, and checking out the events. A lot of authors will come through for talks, but they also do smaller more common events like teaching kids DnD.
When I was a kid/teenager, really liked using my library for:
- Live events, like author talks, cooking/craft classes, etc.
- They often had free passes to local museums and cultural events
I still use Libby to read most of my books, but the connection of the library to the rest of the local cultural ecosystem is what was most exciting to me about the physical location!
One thing I've really missed during the pandemic are my library's study rooms, which you sign out to work in solo or with someone else for an hour or two at a time. Especially after two years of working ONLY from home, I miss having that place where I can go and focus for a little while.
Libraries, schools, churches— all physical anchors of and metaphors for community life. But libraries are perhaps the most democratic, radical, and generous. I’m not really in school or church much these days, the library (and bookstores) fill that nourishing third place role in my life— a place to learn, aspire, and connect.
A few things I’ve noticed in libraries, especially in the last decade:
- Everday innovation // Libraries and librarians are natural “last mile” innovators, listening and creatively responding to needs of a diverse public
- Service hubs // Whether explicit access to social services (e.g. assistance, IDs) or information hubs, local libraries often bridge the gaps in highly fragmented civic service delivery (e.g. new citizens, prison re-entry, etc)
- Beyond the book // Love the evolution about what can be borrowed at a library — hobby kits, local experts, language conversation partners, etc.
- Community curation // The murals, mini-exhibits, and displays in libraries (sometimes in partnership with museums) are such lovely ways to democratize access to culture and bring stories/knowledge to life.
Online, we see community managers, like librarians— creating third spaces for peer support and learning. However, like librairians, their skills, strategic insight, and needs are often overlooked and underleveraged. How might we view these roles in new ways?
Enshrined on Brooklyn Public Library— almost spiritual, no?
"Here are enshrined the longing of great hearts and noble things that tower above the tide, the magic word that winged wonder starts, the garnered wisdom that never dies." -Roscoe C. Brown
So much of the public library is its accessibility - many without other access currently use public libraries to access the internet itself, so putting a library on the internet feels like it is placing a barrier to entry that doesn't exist in the '3D' version. So it feels like that would have to be dealt with somehow, through physical location or mobile connection or something like that. Like, could you 'check out' the whole library on a free device? How might inclusive online spaces incorporate the actual online access part?
Also we joke about the shushing in libraries but it's because it's such a signature of a successful space to have respectful norms like that, that feels like a core aspect of creating any online space - librarians as wise moderators.
I love libraries and have grown to appreciate their usefulness more as I got older. There are challenges with access (certain sections are blocked because of age or pedigree- reference sections in particular) and overdue books pose a stigma and penalty. We don't create stewardship when these structural barriers are created. Being able to cultivate and foster grace in spaces would be beneficial.
The events of the last week reminded me of the need for The Uncensored Library and initiatives like it. https://www.uncensoredlibrary.com/en
I love this question, I just submitted a BKC application on the same subject. My name's Mek, I help run Open Library at the Internet Archive, one of the world's first non-profit digital libraries.
To me, above all, libraries represent an opportunity for equitable access to the material required to allow all members of society to participate in the great conversation. They are a way of enabling us to pool our resources to help each other and promote common good. They are places which protect our privacy, help us find answers, and provide us with a safe place to think.
I've been asking 4 lines of inquiry:
1. Bringing Libraries Online. What does it look like for a public library to make the digital leap onto the Internet? What services does it provide? How does it make material accessible? How do these institutions deal with born-digital material? There are some major challenges to this happening: https://mekarpeles.medium.com/content-landlords-and-the-eviction-of-american-libraries-18461f9d819a
2.The Internet AS a Library. What does the Internet look like as a Library? i.e. what do libraries look like as they blossom beyond books? How might borrowing work in the native browser? How do libraries function with born-digital material? How are libraries browsed? Can patrons borrow from each other natively? Here's the future I imagine if the Internet was built as a Library:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAL5js2vl0E&t=2949s. I think it broadly resembles Danny Hillis's Learning Map: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CMdKeAMD_YzaS44dfRQK_Er17v0a1edCBn3rDUk75LI/edit?usp=sharing
3. A Defensible Commons. As @bhaviklathia perfectly says: "WE NEED ONLINE COMMONS THAT ARE IMMUNE TO THE CORROSIVE IMPACT OF THE PROFIT INCENTIVE". What does this look like? Who can fund works for the commons? How is it funded? What is the Internet's First Sale Doctrine? Who regulates it and how -- what is the governance? What does the public domain of the future look like and who maintains it? Who ensures the holdings of the common are equitable and diverse?  https://twitter.com/bhaviklathia/status/1488288622335963137
4. The Evolving Needs of Patrons. The physical Carnegie library model exists to solve certain geographic constraints. In a fully digital world, what are the needs of patrons which the previous model isn't prepared to accommodate? For instance, online learning for parents, teachers, and students. Access to scholarship for researchers in remote areas. Tools for collaboration.
I think the modern library should be a social commons. Place to get information - sure. Books/internet/magazines etc should always be a part of the library. But a future library would be a great space & place for all folks in a given community to gather, interact and learn from each other, as well as from the resources in the library. My kids are often exposed to some of the more colourful characters in our community when we visit the library. And I love that aspect of it.
In our community, our library is in the core of the community where we don't have any open spaces. So if the library had a co-located park/open space with shelter where people could gather - ala town square - I would then encourage people to gather IRL in complement to online. We have parks - having a librarypark would allow that gathering of many layers of social strata to collect both inside and out.
I'd like to see that co-mingling of many layers of the community being able to gather online too at a digital librarypark. Place where you can cross-paths with someone that you never would otherwise.
I have a visceral reaction against public libraries on the internet. The physical library is quiet, casual, slow pace, distinctive smell, the anticipation of discovering an even better book while looking for the one I thought I wanted, running into friends, and joining in a meeting/concert/presentation on a common interest. The physical public library can't be replaced.
However, qualities that an "internet library" must have -- but are hard to foster on the internet -- (except for perhaps Wikipedia, which, yes, is a specific type of social media platform). Jonathan Rauch's book, The Constitution of Knowledge, contains a wonderful discussion of these qualities, which are found in one or another social media platform, but ALL of these essential qualities are found in no existing social media platform.
Libraries are one of the few places remaining that allow an individual to simply exist. They have no expectation of a purchase or a purpose. They do not try to sell anything. They do not track every movement, every book you pick up, or every aisle you browse. They do not generate tax revenue.
So a digital library should operate under the same principles. Everyone is on an equal footing. Everyone can offer something, but that doesn't mean everyone is amplified.
Perhaps Wikipedia is already a version of this?
My favorite thing about the library is how fulfilling it is to shift from a culture of "infinite scroll" to infinite learn--literally sprawled out between the stacks looking for something new to dive into. From the curated series that librarians set up, to the shift away from books as the only thing shared, to housing archival collections about community-specific history and locally produced cannon, libraries feel like the truest multi-functional, most welcoming, and most DIVERSE space in my community. I wish that the online world would feel more like this.
This is maybe inherent in the question, but perhaps worth calling out specifically: public libraries have "interpretive flexibility." They persisted and grew in America because they have been broadly popular to different groups of people for different reasons. The fact that one physical space can be the home for so many different visions (as illustrated by the great answers in this thread) is part of the power of public libraries.
The physical public library is a two-sided platform. Its permanence in a physical community with expert staff offers it the capacity to grow, develop, respond and evolve as neighborhood needs, media and technology shifts. I think interpretive flexibility has been key to (relatively) stable, democratic funding over the course of the past several decades.
This conversation is amazing and so needed. I agree strongly with so many of the points made here about online libraries needing to be equitable, social, interactive spaces for learning as well as building community and providing a safe, welcoming space. I’ve been inspired by New_Public in thinking about these much-needed public spaces (the parks, the libraries). My current work is focused on community-building and equity-gap-bridging in virtual worlds.
I’ve just finished my first attempt at a virtual library experience for Black History month. It’s on the Virbela Open Campus platform, but the concepts could be applied to other virtual worlds as well. I am not a designer or programmer by training, and this platform provides users with many customization options for an average user (images, audio, video, presentations, etc.). For example, using photographic images of real libraries to help users feel like they are in that type of space. Using Biophilic Design principles (images and sounds of nature) to create a feeling of calm and quiet. Thinking about concepts like skeuomorphism to help guide users through a space (if you see an image of a book, you might think to click on it to “open” it, linking to more information online). Facilitating community by having areas with virtual tables and chairs and a private volume “bubble" for book clubs, etc.
I would be grateful for any thoughts and feedback from this group of thought leaders. I think it’s so important to realize the benefit of perpetual, welcoming virtual spaces for learners (of all ages) and communities (local and global). They afford us an additional layer of connection with other humans to help lift us all up with knowledge and career opportunities. The virtual public library at the heart of successful online communities, so as is being discussed here, we need to get it right!
The first time I've been to a "public" library was when I lived in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was 38 years old. my kids and I loved that the libraries provided books in the languages of communities surrounding the library. but what impressed the most was the freedom and how EVERYONE uses the library which made it such a community space. after my time in Copenhagen I decided to go back to Sudan and start my own library starting with my own collection of books: Sudanartanddesignlibrary.com ....
The Idea of an Internet public library wouldn't be ACCESSIBLE in places like Sudan due to the instability of electricity and how expensive internet is.
I wonder if there are some insights to be gained from the success of Little Free Libraries (the mini libraries you see in yards, some schools, parks and other public spaces). There are now more than 150,000 of them in the US alone with growing efforts to place them in low income areas and communities far from public libraries where children especially have little access to books. There are so many retired teachers, former librarians and many others who enjoy acting as Library stewards and maintaining and curating their little free libraries. I wonder if there is a way to translate that passion and pride into something that worked as digital spaces.
This art project may be of interest here: https://libraryofbabel.info/About.html. The structure, organization, and conceptualization of Borges' original work is reflected here, and can potentially inspire the construction of other systems.
One thing I miss and love about libraries is immersion and serendipity. (And librarian curation!)
While goodreads, bookshop, amazon (I know, yuck) introduce recommendations and lists, there's nothing like going into a stack looking for one title and leaving with a stack of surprises. The ability to browse, page through books, immerse—before bringing books home. (Not to mention carrels...) Le sigh— nothing quite close online.
(....and the old school library pocket and card to see who has read it before you?! Game changer in elementary school.)
With a huge nod to Dipayan Ghosh (Terms of Disservice, terrific read) -- Libraries (both public and academic) can help us reconceive the internet as a public good, and for the most part, I think they are trying to do that.
Tech company giants would like us to believe that the current internet was inevitable. That the tradeoffs (which are so troubling to civil society - the data surveillance, devastating deployment of AI/ML, etc) are just an inevitable part of the territory. In other words, all that we could ever have expected from the internet is just what has been delivered by Google, Facebook and Amazon. They’ll take credit (and profits) for what we like – finding things, connecting with people, getting stuff. But any of the tradeoffs imposed by their business models and practices are not their problem, and they want us thoroughly indoctrinated – that there is no better way to have developed a world wide internet for civil society. For the tech bros, the job of political leaders is just to squirrel around and try to mitigate the horrors this "model" of the internet has brought about. In their view, we just don't understand how innovation works if we believe we could ever have had an internet whose affordances could be fully directed to addressing racism, poverty, climate change, international conflict, universal quality healthcare, and the like. Could we have had a different internet? Is the development of the internet so very different from the way that the unscrupulous flocked to the opium trade, slavery, colonial exploitation, imperialist violence and more because of the huge profits to be made?
My love for libraries is that they are a place to ask these kinds of questions and for society to come together around possibilities.
Ideally the online community would:
1. Mimic my ability to share or give away a physical book and get it back or give the ability to pass it on to the person it was shared with.
It would also support authors by hosting their works.
Maybe a NFT that is attached to a book / audiobook / video that allows the media to be bought sold and loaned out.
2. The online community would also allow a user to recreate the user experiance of walking into a real library in real life IRL and have someone help them find/search for information they are looking for.
I love IRL librarys becasue the staff/librarirans are alwasy so knowlegable and super quiet/respectful.
If there was a way to recreate this experiance online that would be so useful.
The Libby app is great, but it still treats ebooks like they are print copies: there are only a few copies available and we all have to wait in a hold queue until we can “check them out.”
This is silly. We should be able to read books the same way we watch movies or listen to music: on demand. The pay structure could work similar to Kindle Unlimited (or Netflix for that matter) where users pay a monthly fee, and writers earn money for every 1,000 words read.
There are a couple of startups who have tried to do this and failed (because the big five publishing houses wouldn’t let their books be part of it) but Kindle Unlimited and now Scribd are making a play for that space. Though I think Wattpad will destroy them all soon enough—they are by far the most popular reading option for Gen Z!
personally, i love the multi-functional locality of my library; i can go there to rest, or stumble upon a new book i prob wouldn't discover via "books recommended for you" on digital sites (or at least, it feels more like *my discovery*). it's also has a very handy public restroom which can be a gamechanger.
i've witnessed the library's powerful impact on my mother, an immigrant and senior. she has leveraged libraries' ESL courses and even took a course to become a health home aid worker (her first job in the USA) thanks to an announcement during a library ESL course. (the community bulletin can also be a really handy local resource). my mom struggles to use the internet, so it makes me wonder, what can an online library for ESL speakers and/or immigrants in north america/one specific neighborhood look like?... a big idea to grok!
There are 2 things that strike a chord with me most when considering the power of libraries and the corresponding lack of their presence in online communities. They both become hard to reconcile when scale is introduced. Nonetheless, I feel that some parametrization and prioritization could make them possible.
1. The librarian - not only from the perspective of wisdom and moderation, but also just as a form of general guidance. You basically have this incredible support function that is the heart of the institution. It is pretty much always in the central area of the space, and you are encouraged to approach them. Help centers, FAQs, and other forms of 'guidance' online are incredibly tertiary, lethargic, out of date, and if you dare try to get help from an actual person you must come prepared with great equanimity! What if the 'guidance' function within digital experiences was a primary feature? What if people could actually get in touch with someone, or have a really good digital support function? When I have the experience of a positive conversation with support it makes 100x more loyal to that product or community.
2. Familiarity - Over a decade ago when I was still in school, the library was my second home. It's not just about productive dialog, or interactions with people, or interactions with the books. It's the sense that you've been here over and over again, and it's reliable. It's always there. There is a feeling of predictability. I think human nature often craves structure and stable networks. The library presents that both in its institutional longevity and its structural permanence. Note, books may change or be refreshed or added daily, but the space is the space, and so even though a library represents the greatest vehicle for change, evolution, improvement, and progress, we can rest assured that the library will be there and we can feel at home. In relation to apps and websites that have ephemerality at its core - rapidly changing designs, formats, feeds, etc... - familiarity and predictability is the enemy to how they operate.
There is too much knowledge in books, which cannot be searched through search engines, and there are various books in various countries and languages. If these books and knowledge can be interoperated, then human knowledge can have a breakthrough, we have too much repetitive knowledge, just because we cannot find the knowledge that already exists, the library should become a hub of knowledge or a Tower of Babel, where everyone collaborates and eventually forms a huge knowledge network.
I'm particularly interested in this from the perspective of libraries as places where patrons can contribute. Some libraries include books written by local community members, or even published by them (Josh Kramer mentioned a zine class in another comment). Then there are events, both of the "club" type, where members of the same club contribute for each other, and the "performance" type, where the potential audience is the entire community.
This stands out to me because it's one of the things that modern Internet lacks. Publishing and performing is very hard without going through a for-profit company. In my ideal world, everyone would have their own Web server, but that seems pretty unlikely to be feasible. A digital library-equivalent could help provide hosting, and a variety of self-publishing options, from the social media-style "type a block of text here" to the blog-style "write what you want and customize it", to the full Web developer experience of "code a website".
Open platforms where people can host whatever they want often get into trouble with abuse, but libraries can provide a good model there, too. Betsy Streeter mentioned librarians as "wise moderators", which is exactly what happens in the physical world, and would be needed here.
Finally, it bears mentioning that clearly, all this would take money. The point about hosting is one of the direct examples, as is wise, educated moderators. One of the false promises of the social media era has been that you can do community-building entirely for free - set up a free Discord, or subreddit, or Fandom wiki, or Facebook group. But, beyond small groups that can mostly fly under the radar, this is one of the sources of problems. Public libraries are paid for by taxes, so investment from the community (ideally, investment arranged such that the burden doesn't fall too hard on the less-fortunate in the community), and sooner or later, any digital library projects will have to figure out their own ways.