In their modern public form, libraries continue to fill an essential role: to inform, engage, and delight people by making knowledge freely accessible. And in the digital world, libraries ought to continue to serve these essential functions. The common argument that we need fewer libraries in the era of Google is faulty to its core—the need for such public-spirited institutions is greater than ever.
Of course in the digital age, in all kinds of libraries, modes of operation and specific functions are necessarily changing. And while the shift underway in libraries today is on the right track in many places, the process of change is often too slow and too poorly coordinated. The rate of change varies enormously from the most forward-looking institutions to the most traditional. If change continues in this desultory fashion, it will be impossible to make the most of the best innovations—and it may prove too late for many libraries, which may wither for lack of support. The way to bring change more quickly, is to hack libraries.
At first blush, the idea of hacking libraries might sound faddish. But it is, in fact, a serious and fundamental proposition meant to draw us back to an approach based on the first principles of library work: finding the best ways to provide access to knowledge in the near-term, and to preserve knowledge in the long-term.
True, people commonly think of hackers as pimply teenagers in their pajamas writing computer programs to mess up other people’s systems, or Russian spies out to steal their identity. Hackers are commonly viewed as people with no regard for intellectual property and believe that information is meant to be free, without restriction. But these destructive hackers are not the hackers we should turn to for inspiration.
The hackers who have something to teach us are those who wrestled with the original, massive computers of the 1950s, those who worked in the MIT artificial intelligence (AI) lab in the late 1960s and 1970s, and those who followed Richard Stallman in creating the Free Software Foundation. Hackers like these, in the classic sense, are the people who brought us the open and configurable computers, networks, and programs that we rely upon today. And in the case of libraries, the task is to figure out how to break down the functions that libraries are needed to serve, and then to rebuild those functions for the digital-plus era.
Hacking libraries begins with engaging a large number of people from a diverse array of communities in a common cause: to remake libraries as institutions, and to train or retrain librarians to thrive in the years to come. Hacking libraries starts with reconceptualizing libraries.
To hack libraries is to start by replacing the library as place with the library as platform, with each library being a node in a series of interconnected platforms. The library will continue to house physical materials and provide a space for people to go to and interact with information; librarians will continue to be helpful guides through the world of information and knowledge, present in both the physical environment and online. But the core function of the library and those who work in them will be dramatically more networked and interconnected across institutions.
Hacking libraries would alter the long-standing traditional library model, which involves obtaining physical copies of materials; bringing those physical materials—books, CDs, microfilm, and so on—to a central location; sorting materials in ways that help people make sense of and find them; and keeping those materials safe for the long term. Each of these functions, in a world of hacked libraries, would be shared among a network of libraries. Individual libraries would then be free to split activities between collaborations with others and direct assistance to their own library users in accessing these shared platforms.
Hacking libraries would also shift their emphasis from materials-centric to consumer-oriented. Instead of focusing on building collections, many librarians have come to see their primary job as serving people at various stages of their lives. A library that is oriented not toward materials but toward people will be more explicitly service-focused, meeting immediate and relevant needs rather than continuing to do only the work they traditionally have done.
A strategy of focusing on people rather than on materials is risky. It would require libraries to stop doing some valuable things that they’ve done in the past, especially those activities related to building and managing redundant collections. In any given metropolitan area or consortium of colleges, such a strategy would entail holding and caring for fewer copies of physical materials, for instance, and relying more on digital, networked configurations and materials.
But there is a greater risk: Failing to make this change in orientation. And being passed by in the digital world.
Annemarie Naylor is a library hacker. Frustrated by the idea of the English public sector “giving up” on the small rural library and by talk of cutting library budgets, she set out to create a new model for the community library.
In 2013 she helped launch the novel Waiting Room in St. Botolph’s, U.K., with help from the Essex libraries and a group of volunteers. Instead of trying to save the traditional library, Naylor and her colleagues decided to create a space where people could create and exchange knowledge in a public-spirited manner.
Once a bus station, the Waiting Room is now a creative space for Naylor’s community—a colorful, attractive space with high ceilings and a flexible arrangement. Naylor calls it a “hack/maker/library space.” People in the community are urged to propose events and activities centered on ideas, skills development, and creative enterprise. The space hosts workshops alongside the Micro Social History Museum, where local residents can share and preserve their photographs, memories, and stories of life in St. Botolph’s. The space also functions as a cafe, bar, and event venue.
The Waiting Room has attracted a great deal of attention. Through the work of Naylor and others, the idea of this kind of community library has been taking hold in England and spreading from there. Sixty-five community discussions across the country demonstrated the public interest in new kinds of local libraries for a digital era.
Naylor has also reached across the Atlantic and is partnering with librarians such as Nate Hill in Chattanooga, Tenn., to improve her model and build a network. In concert with Hill and a third librarian, Marc De’ath, Naylor has established a new venture, Common Libraries, to help communities determine their own information needs.
For Naylor and her collaborators, libraries are the answer to poverty, unemployment, and boredom. As a platform for the exchange of knowledge and information, Naylor’s version of a library is deeply aligned with the specific needs and interests of her community, not based on a single view of what a library should be as a site for collections or as a public space.
In some communities, the goal of the community library is to help teach skills to the unemployed and bring the uninitiated into the world of technology. In others, the focus falls on supporting entrepreneurship or aspects of the creative arts sector. There is no one-size-fits-all model for the community library.
What Naylor, Hill, and De’ath are doing across the Atlantic is a great example of how libraries can shift from competing with each other to collaborating. Had they not collaborated with one another, these three librarians would never have been able to launch Common Libraries and have the freedom and resources to rethink completely their local libraries.
To some extent, the hack Naylor, Hill, and De’ath have come up with has already been well under way for decades in libraries, but unevenly. Librarians are, by and large, some of the best collaborators in the world, and the library system has developed over many centuries into a powerful network. The human network of librarians already has many of the hallmarks of what it needs to become for a digital era. But more needs to be done if libraries are to survive an era in which resources are stretched further than ever before.
Librarians have proven over and over that the profession is capable of extraordinary collaboration. More than forty years ago, a group of major libraries in Ohio recognized the importance of shared computing resources and established a partnership called the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which is now referred to primarily by its acronym. OCLC calls itself “the world’s largest library collaborative.” The library data and services provided by OCLC to 70,000 libraries around the world enables libraries to avoid a great deal of redundant work.
The OCLC partnership has reduced the need for every library to create its own catalog record for every book or item it collects, creating enormous efficiencies. OCLC’s WorldCat system, for instance, allows anyone with web access to search across the catalogs of a large number of libraries to locate books wherever they are in the country.
There are many other great examples of libraries collaborating, rather than competing, in order to serve people better. The interlibrary loan system, for instance, ensures that a library patron in Iowa, can borrow a book that is not physically available locally if it is available at a partner library in California. Librarians have also established collaborative collecting networks in which each library agrees to take on primary responsibility for collecting and storing particular materials. The Boston-area law libraries have agreed to such an approach, for instance.
OCLC and other present-day collaborative endeavors, however, are not sufficient to drive the shift toward open, connected library systems. Deep collaboration among libraries is on the rise, but it is still not the norm. Too few librarians and library schools participate in the kind of collaboration that will fundamentally reshape libraries for the digital era, such as the creation of shared open-source platforms, shared professional development opportunities, shared collection development, and coordinated mass digitization.
We need radical collaboration in libraries, far beyond what happens today—not collaboration at the margins or collaboration as afterthought. Librarians need to measure their success not as individual institutions, or people, but rather as collaborators working together to build a new ecosystem of information and meeting the needs of a rapidly changing group of users. This series of conceptual shifts will not come easily, nor will it be uncontroversial.
The next phase of collaboration among libraries may prove to be harder: The development of digital libraries should be grounded in open platforms, with open APIs (application programming interfaces), open data, and open code at all levels. No one library will own the code, the platform, or the data that can be downloaded, “free to all.”
The spirit that is needed is the hacker spirit embodied by Code4Lib, a group of volunteers associated with libraries, archives, and museums who have dedicated themselves to sharing approaches, techniques, and code related to the remaking of libraries for the digital era. At an international level, the community that comes together in conferences as part of the NEXT Library is up to the same task of hacking libraries through large-scale collaboration.
Libraries will also become more powerful the more connected they are to other types of learning institutions. Schools are an obvious point of connection. Libraries as platforms, with open APIs, could help American public schools, as they introduce Common Core standards across the country. Openly accessible library materials that fit the Common Core could be made easily available to teachers and their students as they create new teaching plans. Open systems could also serve as sandboxes for students who are learning how to code and to work with digital materials.
Hack = Innovation
In a word association game, innovation and libraries do not often come together naturally. That is probably a bit unfair to the many librarians who bring to their work a spirit of experimentation and innovation similar to the spirit that created the Internet and the web. But to promote further innovation in our libraries, we—the public—need to ensure that libraries and library hackers have the money, resources, and time they need to make this transition.
Librarians should work with all kinds of unexpected partners in the process of reinvention. For example, graphic designers and user experience experts can help librarians reimagine how digital shelves might present books and other materials in revealing new ways. Business consultants can experiment with new models for the e-lending of digital texts that will make better financial sense without violating the letter or spirit of copyright law. Most important, librarians should be open to partnerships with those who love libraries and seek to serve the public interest at this crucial moment, when reinvention is most badly needed.
The aim of hacking libraries is to infuse them with a spirit now occurring in the private, for-profit sector. The start-up scene has been cranking out successful new information-related projects for decades: Consider Google’s search service, Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s apps platform, and Facebook and Twitter as five possible entrants in the contest for most important information innovation of the past decade. Wikipedia, Mozilla, and Khan Academy might be contenders from the nonprofit side of the ledger.
What, on the other hand, is the biggest innovation to emerge from libraries in the digital age? This call to hack libraries has nothing to do with destroying them, and everything to do with rebuilding them in ways that will be useful, attractive, and sustainable as formats and user practices shift.
Reimagining and remaking these beloved institutions will not be easy. Current library activities that have appeal for many people may have to fall by the wayside. The net effect of hacking libraries, however, will be to save them as institutions, to make them more helpful and better positioned to achieve their goals for the future, and to unleash creativity in ways that we can only speculate about today.
John Palfrey is head of school at Phillips Andover Academy and the founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America. This article is an abridged version of Chapter 5, "Hacking Libraries" which appears in Palfrey's recent book, Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Want to hear more? John Palfrey will participate in the panel discussion “Making the Case for Why Libraries Matter” on Friday, June 26, 2–3 p.m., at the Marriott Marquis San Francisco (Yerba Buena Salon 13–15).