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Monday, July 15, 2013

The library of the future

Posted By on Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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Next week, the Indianapolis Public Library launches "Yours to Create," a six-month public planning process aimed at defining the library's role through 2020. A steering committee has been formed and a variety of task forces will hold open meetings to explore a rather dizzying array of themes, ranging from "nurturing healthy and vibrant communities" to "enriching informal education."

Hold on, I hear you saying. Didn't the library just finish its big expansion project? That was in 2007, just six years ago. The trouble is, libraries are like dogs. Library time, for reasons I'll get to in a moment, is accelerated so that every year for us is multiplied exponentially for the library.

In fact, this visioning process arrives at what feels like a crossroads for public libraries throughout the country. The digitizing, not just of information, but the culture at large, has raised questions about whether we even need public libraries any more. If you own a smart phone, you have access to more information than is found in the reference departments of many institutions. And now that eBooks are beginning to outsell their paper progenitors, there are questions about the longterm viability of book collections.

Of course, there have always been those among us who have been quick to question the very existence of the public library system. I remember then-Mayor Stephen Goldsmith saying the library had no business lending videos because that put it in competition with video stores (remember those?).

Some are bound to say the public library - like public schools or, for that matter, the postal service - is redundant, that the market can do a better job of delivering the goods.

These folks miss a larger point. For public libraries, the market doesn't provide answers so much as it is constantly asking questions. Our rapid adoption of new information technologies is why libraries feel like they're cramming seven years into every 12-month cycle. No sooner do we embrace one format, than another comes along to take its place. Library budgets are stressed by trying to keep up. But if the proliferation of new media has forced librarians to scramble, these tools have changed us, as well - and that's an even bigger issue. Go to a restaurant or bar; you'll probably see someone bowing over their smart phone. They may be texting, checking email, watching a video or, yes, googling an obscure fact in order to win a bet.

This constitutes a paradox: For all the ways that new technologies connect us to various forms of information and entertainment, they have also managed to isolate us. Resolving this contradiction is an area where the future library must surely play a role.

It is easy for librarians to think of themselves as purveyors of information. As vast as this area of expertise may seem, it actually sells librarianship short. Libraries are actually America's ultimate cultural institutions. They are places we have provided so that all of us might freely be in touch with a full spectrum of human expression - and with each other.

American public libraries symbolize and embody the idea that the quest for knowledge is ultimately a kind of experience we need to share.

While the library will almost certainly continue to collect things, its cultural role is bound to expand in order to fill whatever gaps are created by the increasing personalization of our technologies.

At the moment, we are awash in information - and information providers. I hope the "Yours to Create" discussions will reveal ways the public library might serve to help citizens, organizations and businesses coordinate needs and efforts across institutional boundary lines. The library should convene people not just to discuss the library's future, but to get a handle on how the city as a whole can make knowledge-based resources more readily available to everyone, from public school kids and teachers, to IT professionals and entrepreneurs.

As the public library becomes more closely associated with cultural experience, the importance of branch libraries will be heightened. Neighborhoods need anchor-like institutions to provide stability, continuity and the feeling that living there is worthwhile. Library branches are a palpable way for the city to create corners of hope and belonging in all its parts.

Indianapolis likes to brag about its sports scene and its walkable downtown. We can be just as proud of our public library system. Indianapolis Public consistently ranks among the best urban systems in the country. This is not to say it hasn't had its share of problems over the years. The expansion was a bumpy (if finally rewarding) ride; leadership, at times, has been wanting. But even in its roughest patches, the dedication of the library's staff has seen it - and the city - through. The quality built into this system is no accident; it represents Indianapolis at its best.

That's why the "Yours to Create" discussions promise to be so important. The process will be launched at the Central Library on Tuesday, July 23 from 5-7:30 p.m. Brian Payne of the Central Indiana Foundation will give the keynote address. Go and be reminded of what the library has accomplished. Then share your ideas about what should happen next.

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