As we start a new year, it might appear that the hurdles facing public libraries have never been greater. With financially burdened communities; ebooks, movies, and music increasingly delivered through walled gardens by technology companies that have no resonance with free-to-all service; and rapidly evolving modes of publishing, it would appear that libraries are in a tight corner. That may all be true, but there are signs of rescue, signs of hope.
One of the best things coming is the growing awareness that public libraries need to solve their own problems. That is not an easy proposition; public libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from Boston and New York research libraries to small town libraries in the American west. However, the internet bridges both vast distances and town/gown differences, and we are starting to see a whole new community of libraries emerge. A portion of this effort is being negotiated through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), but the greater and more important aspect is being developed peer to peer.
A current example is the ReadersFirst initiative, a growing collaboration of libraries that has endorsed a straightforward set of propositions that seek to provide more seamless access to digital resources. ReadersFirst seeks simple but high impact goals: make content like ebooks more portable between providers, and more available to patrons; simplify integration into library discovery systems to ease access by patrons; and make content available in any useful format, whether EPUB, Mobi, or a website. And in this effort, amazingly, they may succeed.
ReadersFirst has published a draft content access specification [pdf] for resource providers, and it is the kind of focused, targeted document that vendors can engage with. It is not a general, theoretical statement about the missions and aims of libraries, but a set of instructions for how libraries want to provide services, and what is needed from external companies to enable that. ReadersFirst has made a point of including vendors in their discussions, eliciting their input and suggestions instead of treating them as strangers from a far-off land. The aims of the draft requirements are put clearly:
ReadersFirst-compliant e-content distribution services will allow secure, stable, and robust
programmatic methods for approved external services to export and query digital content
metadata (bibliographic information) and patron account information (number of holds, items
out), and perform common circulation transactions (request, checkout, download, cancel). In
addition, these services shall allow customer customization and control of patron notifications
and communications, and provide robust on-demand administrative data reports. Finally,
these services shall provide digital content in standard data formats that can be displayed by
common e-reader applications.
This is exactly the kind of thing that public libraries should be doing: identifying discrete problems with tractable solutions, avoiding scope creep, and engaging proactively and openly with the vendor community to deliver solutions. It reminds me in many ways of the best kind of work that has been delivered in the university research library community through organizations such as the Digital Library Federation and more recently, code4lib (C4L). “Coders for libraries” is a continuously emergent, engaged, and self-organized community of technical library professionals that identify needs and seek to deliver solutions. Something like it is sorely needed for public libraries.
Tellingly, ReadersFirst’s initial on-the-ground effort has much in common with the most successful C4L initiatives: it is drafted by a small number of knowledgeable library professionals with active participation from all necessary stakeholders. In this case, much of the work is being drafted from individuals in technical services departments; in other cases, it might involve software engineers. The key thing is ReadersFirst is serving as an organizing framework to bring people together and unite them in purpose.
I believe that the lack of coordinated technical and engineering work among public libraries has been one of their greatest shortcomings in the past 10 years. Too often, public libraries have been reliant on external, for-profit companies. Historically, there has been a dearth of software engineering and technical staff serving our communities, but this is changing rapidly. With the 2013 ALA Midwinter conference hosting a series of Maker summits in coordination with MAKE magazine, it is clear that a new generation of younger librarians is emerging with strong network proclivities. This is symptomatic of wider trends: as internet-based services pervade our work and personal lives, it is natural to expect a continued flow of web design and engineering capacities into public libraries.
While it is possible for LITA – ALA’s sponsored Library Information and Technology Association – to direct and guide a growing charge of active digital, networked initiatives, it is at least equally likely that it will not. LITA is governed by a knowledgeable board of directors with a committed executive group, but it has all of the encumbrances of a long-lived organization sheltered by ALA, with extensive committees, its own bylaws, interest groups, task forces, strategic planning, and budget oversight. This is not the kind of lightweight, engineering-focused organization to chart and provide solutions, although it may be a superb place to discuss and help prioritize them.
I encourage the public library community to form a C4L-equivalent formal organization. Such an effort could be catalyzed by ALA and LITA, but membership should be self-organizing and coalesce around activities such as Make @ ALA Midwinter. Rather than see library director-led engagement with DPLA, an independent design and engineering group should “own” public library participation in national, and increasingly international, development contexts. It could also take a lead in soliciting involvement from technology companies ranging from platform providers like Google and Apple, to startups like Smashwords, Vook, or Aerbook that could provide new forms of publishing services to communities. This new organization should not be captured by ALA but remain external to it, although possibly linked, and obviously seeking common ground.
Taking heed of the parsimony of Code4Lib’s name and intent, I suggest drawing the boundaries around corresponding public library endeavors with a broader and more inclusive fence. “Design for Communities” seems about right, or something like it. Our world is at least as much about design as software engineering, and with libraries being re-articulated to include maker spaces, publishing tools, pop-ups, and born-anew mobile services, what we are really about is bringing the world of information into the places we serve, whether large urban spaces, small towns, or rural farms. New times call for new organizations. For public libraries, 2013 is the year to put aside angst, and lean forward into action.