Search for a President of the Boston Public Library

Since September of 2015, we’ve been in the midst of a search to find a new President of the Boston Public Library.  The BPL is an amazing institution on many levels.  Part of the greatness of the BPL derives from its history: it is the first free municipal library in the world, the first to create neighborhood branches, the initial home of the Digital Public Library of America (a personal favorite!), and so forth.  Part of its greatness lies in its promise, as yet untapped — all those terrific things that the team at the library will get done in the future, building upon its storied past and extraordinary collections and buildings.  The person who will become the next President of the Boston Public Library, succeeding Amy E. Ryan (whom I much admire), will take on an important, challenging, exciting role in our city and in the world of libraries and information.

As the chair of the search process, I have led a talented and diverse group of volunteers who care about Boston and its libraries in their work since the Fall.  Our charge has been to reach out to the world at large about the BPL and its promise, to consider a broad range of candidates, and to bring between 2 and 4 candidates forward to the Trustees for their consideration.  In a formal sense, the Trustees make this appointment.  The Mayor’s office is also involved in the process, as the successful candidate will become a member of the Mayor’s senior team.  The final presentations and the Board of Trustee’s selection are planned for Saturday, May 21.

I have been planning a blog post about the search process up to this point, since I have now formally handed things over to Robert Gallery, chair of the Board of Trustees at the BPL.  Incidentally, I recently received an email from Nancy R. Browne, Interim Chief of Technical and Digital Services Boston Public Library, in which she asked two great questions that I will use as the jumping off point for my post.  Ms. Browne wrote:

This has been a long and a careful search process, and you deserve a great deal of credit for involving staff and the public as you have done and continue to do. I have two general questions for the Committee on the “process” of the presidential search:

1. In the interests of a very transparent and open process, will the methods and process by which with the “assistance of the executive search firm, Spencer Stuart, the committee narrowed down the expansive field of candidates to three very qualified candidates” be made public?

Sure!  Some of what I write here has been communicated through several means, such as updates on the web and via the press and the listening sessions, but a response here in this blog post might bring it all together.

We started with a fairly long listening tour.  The idea has been to “measure twice, cut once.”  We have heard from hundreds of people who care about the BPL: staff and patrons chief among the informants, but also people who work in City Hall, the Trustees, donors, and people who just care about libraries at large.  These listening sessions were the basis for a position description, which we posted online and sent out widely.  This part of the process ran from roughly November through February.

The early outreach to candidates and much logistical support has been provided by Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm with lots of experience in hiring non-profit leaders, including of big public libraries.  The team from Spencer Stuart contacted hundreds of people on our behalf, both as informants who suggested candidates and gave reaction to the position description and also as candidates.  As the search committee chair, I also talked to many, many people about their interest in the job.  A relatively small number of people “applied” for the job in the sense of sending in an unsolicited CV for the position, to which we have been equally open.  This part of the process ran for much of February and March and into early April.

From that pool in the hundreds, we as a Search Committee talked in depth about roughly two dozen strong candidates.  This small number of candidates had phone interviews and some back and forth with either me or the Spencer Stuart team.  From this group, the search committee chose a yet smaller group for face-to-face interviews in Boston.  (All but one of these face-to-face interviews with the committee were in person; one was over teleconference, at the request of the candidate.)  After a few days of these face-to-face interviews, the committee had a final session (in late April) at which we took votes on the candidates to be brought forward to the Trustees for consideration.

In between the end of the Search Committee meetings and the public Trustee meetings with the three finalists (set for the morning of Saturday, 5/21, at the BPL), Spencer Stuart has been responsible for referencing for the candidates.  The candidates have also had further conversations with me, Spencer Stuart, and others in recent weeks as they have considered whether to become “public” as candidates, which we have required in order to become finalists for the job.  We are confident that these three finalists, whose names were announced by the BPL today, all could do the job extremely well.  It is now up to the Trustees to make a final decision from among these outstanding candidates.

2. What is the weight of the final 75 minute interview in determining your choice of the successful, most qualified candidate? This seems like a very short interview for such an important and pivotal position. If all the preliminary procedures that have led up to these brief public interviews could be disclosed in a detailed summary, we might have greater understanding and confidence in the process.”

I hope that the notes above help in this respect to describe the intensive work over the Fall, Winter and early Spring to get to this point with these strong candidates.  The role of these 75-minute public interviews is to inform the final selection, by the Trustees, among these highly qualified candidates. Ideally, these final presentations will give the Trustees a sense of how these finalist candidates would perform in the public-facing aspects of the job, which is a crucial element of success for such a position.

I send out special thanks to all the members of the Search Committee; all those who participated in the Listening Sessions; and to Debbie Kirrane at the BPL (who coordinated the search on behalf of the BPL) and Molly Murphy (who served as liaison to Boston City Hall).  The team overall has been highly collaborative and has worked very hard.

I hope that many citizens of Boston will come out to the Commonwealth Salon in the BPL’s Central Library in Copley Square on Saturday, beginning at 8 a.m., for the final phase of this important search.

The Web at 25: Looking Ahead to What Might Be

The Web turns 25 years old this year. What has changed since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN in Switzerland, released this gift to the world in 1989? The easier question to answer might be to ask what hasn’t changed. The widespread use of the Web in communities all around the world has touched virtually every aspect of human existence, mostly for good and sometimes for ill. The way that we operate our businesses, the functioning of our democracies, how we relate to other human beings – fundamental aspects of society and welfare are different than they were a quarter-century ago for those people who have access to the Web. To create an exhaustive list of these changes would be nearly impossible – a testament to the extraordinary power of this invention.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify one thing: the “Web” is not the same as the “Internet.” Allow me please to retreat a few decades in time, to share a bit of history. Communications networks long predate the advent of the World Wide Web. One could begin the story in many places; the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947 is a plausible starting point. The development of packet-switching networks in the late 1950s led to breakthrough work by the academic and government researchers who developed ARPANET and related designs in the late 1960s and 1970s. These networks led to the Internet as we know it. On this firm technical foundation, Berners-Lee developed the Web: a system to link hypertext documents that can in turn be accessed via the Internet.

There are many ways the invention of the Web could have gone. Those who worked with it early on might have imagined the Web merely as a way to organize and share information within an organization, an advanced document management system. Or, the invention of the Web might have been patented, with a goal toward creating a massive business and long-term revenue stream for Berners-Lee and perhaps for CERN.

Neither of these things happened. In the spirit of a true scientist, Berners-Lee described and released his work publicly. He did not seek intellectual property protection for his ideas with a goal of monetizing whatever came next. He – and others who helped to promote the Web early on, including Robert Cailliau – recognized it as an invention that could help connect people well beyond the researchers at CERN. A global system of hypertext links could connect people as well as information in the form of text, video, audio, and plausibly any other format we might dream up. This open, public conception of the Web, as opposed to a narrow and proprietary view, has had enormous consequences

The impact of the Web is felt so broadly today because of the capacious, open vision that Berners-Lee brought to his work — and to the way he released the invention to the world. Its impact is a consequence of the brilliance of the design, how it builds upon other networks, and how it allows for others to build on top of it through new ideas.

As we celebrate twenty five years of the Web and what it has meant to societies around the world, we ought also to consider what we might accomplish in the next twenty-five years. Consider three institutions that have already been changed by the Web and which will no doubt change more in the coming two and a half decades: education, libraries, and journalism. Each of these institutions is essential to healthy democracies and relies upon a web that remains free, open, and interoperable. In an increasingly digital world, the importance of these institutions is going up, not down. And yet, in each case, the Web is too often perceived as a threat, rather than as an opportunity, to these institutions and those who work in them. And if the Web itself becomes closed down, controlled by private parties or by government censorship, we will curtail opportunities for extraordinarily positive social change. With great imagination, compelling design, sound policy, and effective implementation, each of these institutions might emerge stronger and better able to serve democracies than before the advent of the Web.

Learning.

In many countries around the world – certainly in the United States – to bring up “the current state of education” is to bring on a conversation characterized by a lot of sighing and hand-wringing. If you mention the Web in this context, it tends to grow more negative still. We fear declension: this generation of students is “dumber” than previous generations, if Emory professor Mark Bauerlein is to be believed. We tend to fear that students have shorter attention spans than they did when they tended to read longer-format works (mostly, books, but perhaps even essays such as this one that go on for more than a page or two). If the Web comes up in such a conversation, it is commonly blamed for one or more of these problems.

Certainly, we do need to teach students to sustain their attention beyond Tweets and Facebook status posts; certainly, we need to do a better job of helping them to learn to discern credible information from less credible information on the Web. But instead of just worrying about what we are losing, we ought to consider what is newly possible. In a world characterized by the Web, there is no shortage of interesting, important, and fun things that we can do to improve education.

The future of education will come about through the application of new technologies to the very old art of teaching and learning. Since the days of Socrates and Plato, teachers have debated the best way to convey ideas and skills to the next generation. What, in a way, could be more important than a society’s ability to prepare its young people to create a bright future for themselves and for the world at large?

As a field, education has not been especially threatened by technology so far. Nor has it been transformed radically. Consider what has happened to the business of recorded entertainment such as music and movies, and most recently the field of book publishing, book stores, and libraries in the era of the Web. The change in related fields is coming on fast and furious. Education is about to get its share of this kind of transformative change.

The easiest place to see this transformation is in higher education. The Web is today often associated with the explosion of free, online courses being offered by top-tier universities. Call this phenomenon “MOOC Mania.” MOOC stands for Massive, Open, Online Courses. The most famous of these initiatives are spin-outs from Stanford – Coursera and Udacity – which are for-profits, funded by venture capitalists, and edX, a project started by MIT and Harvard, as a non-profit. These ventures offer hundreds of courses to millions of students around the world – so far, largely for free – via the Web. Just to be clear, there is no way that interactive courses of this sort could be made so freely available, at relatively little cost, without the advent of the Web.

There is raging, global debate about whether these MOOCs are a good idea. Some think that these courses can solve the vexing problem of rising tuitions – making education much more affordable for students in the process. All of us who run educational institutions know that the rate of increase in tuitions outstrips inflation each year. Why? We are essentially businesses comprised of people. Even if we increase pay in line with inflation, the rate of increase in benefits is much higher than the ordinary rate of inflation. (Other problems, including bad management decisions, contribute to rising costs of tuition, too, to be sure.) Some people think a world in which MOOCs proliferate can help us to reset our models in a more sustainable manner. It’s possible – but it won’t happen without reducing the number of people we employ or how much we pay them. Hence, the controversy.

In some fields, MOOCs offer enormous potential for improving the quality of education. Set aside the business model implications for education for a moment. If we can replace less-good lectures with better, more engaging lectures; if we can replace less good text books with better, more engaging, interactive ones; and if we can put classroom time to better use, the net effect for learning can be fantastic. Here, data can be our friend: we can use analytics to understand better what’s working and what isn’t. Student mastery can rise as teaching methods improve across the board. These gains are much easier to see in some fields – such as math, science, computer science, statistics, and economics – than it is in others, like the visual arts, performing arts, and much of the humanities. But there is very interesting work underway across the academy to understand how we can improve our work as teachers and learners through these models.

There’s another model of online education that holds special promise, which involves an extraordinary teacher named Sal Khan and his web-based service, Khan Academy. Sal Khan is without a doubt the most popular educator in the world right now. Every month, he and his team of a few dozen people reach many millions of students, of all ages, from around the world. Through online videos on a wide array of topics, from computer science to history to art, Sal Khan has reached hundreds of millions of people. These learners have completed over a billion exercises at Khan Academy, on the Web, to test their mastery. They can practice what they learned on the videos, often over and over again. Khan Academy is free and open to anyone.

There’s a big difference between the kind of education someone can get free, online, from the Khan Academy (or on Wikipedia, for that matter), and the kind of education one can get at a great public or private residential school. There are enormous benefits to residential education and to face-to-face encounters with teachers. But there is also a benefit to the ability to watch a well-taught lesson over and over again when you didn’t really understand what your algebra teacher was explaining to you. There’s great value in having exercises to check yourself as you do your homework or as a class is proceeding on a hard topic.

What’s exciting to me is the connection between the experimental, innovative online teaching and learning work being done at places like Khan Academy and the classic, time-proven approaches at our traditional schools. A successful approach to education reform, I believe, will bring together the best of the “classical” with the best of the new “jazz” in education.

One of the knock-on effects of this change is the development of new systems, some technological, that offer a way to understand much better what is working and what is not working well in education. It is exciting to see projects that bring technology into the classroom that can collect a great deal more data about how kids learn and allow us to test various approaches, refining them over time. Think of it as the concept of “big data” supporting education in a promising way. One of the things that education can learn from the Web is the spirit of innovation and experimentation. Through the growing field of educational assessment, we are better able to test approaches, improve upon those that seem to be working, discard those that are a failure, and scale the best of them.

The connection between what young people are learning in formal educational settings and outside the classroom holds enormous untapped potential. Consider a student who can benefit from the energy and enthusiasm of a great teacher, both in the classroom and when they are at home doing their homework. Think of the possibilities of figuring out which forms of teaching work the best for that student in any given course and being able to personalize her education. Think about our ability to connect her passion with the resources that we have all around us – in libraries, museums, and cultural centers of all types, all around the world, some of which are increasingly digitizing their holdings for anyone to use, anywhere, for free.

Students are increasingly exposed to interdisciplinary courses and projects during their schooling and are asked to combine the things that they have been learning. Sometimes these activities take place at a young age, (say 6 or 8); other times, these activities take the form of a capstone experience at the end of high school (age 17 or 18). These experiences teach problem-solving, deep research, teamwork, presentation skills, the building of lateral connections between and among ideas, and the ability to think creatively. Think of courses not called Biology but focused instead on water resources or the ecology of the city or town in which the student lives; think of courses not in just one aspect of the arts but on the importance of cities as cultural centers; think of experiences that bring students into settings where they can hone skills as entrepreneurs and as community servants. These learning experiences are deeply connected to the classroom, but they extend far beyond them – into communities, museums, libraries, businesses, into the “real world.” These ways of teaching and learning mirror the hypertext quality of the Web itself.

Put another way: think of what we could do if we were to apply to the world of education the same energy, the same innovative spirit, and the positive collaboration that we’ve brought to creating the Web and all that rides on top of it, from Google and YouTube to Twitter and Facebook. We should bring together the people, the science, and the expertise from the private sector with the public sector to improve our systems, our methods, and our results. We should hold ourselves to the standards that we have for the highest performing enterprises in our country. The possibilities for schools at all levels could be astonishing. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.

Libraries.

The world of the digital – often characterized by the existence of the Web itself – exacerbates a sense of uncertainty that hangs over libraries. Why do we need libraries, many people ask, when we have the Web? What good is a librarian when we can just ask Google or Apple’s Siri from our handheld device?

For a child born today, the first experience of a broader world of knowledge than she has known before, is increasingly likely to be mediated by a screen of some kind. Over the past two and a half decades, access to the Web, mobile devices, and digital media has increased at a rate far more rapid than the spread of any major information or communications technology in the history of the world. While it took centuries for Gutenberg’s books to reach masses of Europeans, the spread of the Internet and digital media has taken only a few short decades to spread across the globe. Nearly two billion of the world’s 6.8 billion people have access to the Internet. Through mobile devices, well over three billion people can connect to the World Wide Web.

The expansion of the mind can be experienced by a child through a computer screen or through the tiny interface of a mobile phone or in a game, now that we have the Web. But she may also walk into that same library that her mother entered and gain insight and special memories in an inspiring physical space. In today’s world, these digitally-mediated experiences are interwoven with experiences in physical space that complement, confirm, and sometimes challenge what they are learning online. The Web is not a competitor to libraries; it is a complement. The Web should be part and parcel of the future of libraries, not the killer of libraries.

The spread of the Web brings with it many wonderful possibilities for library patrons of all ages. Unprecedented access to knowledge and written material is perhaps the most important benefit. For the first time in human history, people anywhere in the world—including those without access to physical libraries—can access an extraordinary array of knowledge virtually without cost. Schools and universities can make available knowledge and information to their students in ways that were not possible just a few decades ago. The world can open up to children through new interfaces and experiences that will expand their minds, connect them to people elsewhere around the world, and offer them a chance to participate in the making and sharing of knowledge.

Via their patrons, libraries can be drivers of economic development and social innovation. The benefits of far-reaching digital technologies extend beyond learning to aspects of life like creativity, entrepreneurship, and activism. In communities around the world, children are using Web-based technologies to create identities, videos, audio recordings, games, and media of all stripes as they learn and express themselves. As they become teens and young adults, some create inspiring political movements, watchdog groups, and new modes of organizing, and others invent new businesses and technologies that create jobs and opportunities. They teach one another as they build out into the global environment made possible by the Web. Libraries are central to each of these activities, in small towns and large cities. Without libraries as access points and educational settings, these positive aspects of the digital age are unavailable to many kids whose parents cannot afford broadband or personal computers, even in the richest parts of the world.

The Web also makes possible new kinds of libraries. One major new direction for the Web has been advanced by Berners-Lee himself: the notion of the semantic web. In countries around the world, communities are building national digital libraries. In Europe, the collaborative project Europeana is making digitized collections from dozens of nations available freely online. In the United States, the Digital Public Library of America is making the scientific, historical, and cultural record available, free to all, via the Web. In the era of the Web, libraries can take the form of platforms, on which all manner of innovation and learning can flourish.

Journalism.

Alongside education and libraries, journalism is a field in crisis in the world of the Web. The driving forces behind the crisis in journalism are not precisely the same as those in the library environment, but they are related. The increase in readers who come by their news and information on the Web has led to a challenging environment for journalists across the board. The advertising revenue that has made print newspapers and magazines good businesses to own in the past has been declining as attention shifts to the web and to mobile environments. It might seem easy just to switch over to a digital publishing environment, but it isn’t. First, the skills required of journalists are different online than they are offline, in respects that parallel the shifts in skills needed for librarians. More troubling, the “analog dollars” that paid for advertising in the print world are being traded for “digital pennies.” Put another way, the amounts that can be charged for advertising by a digital publication are lower, so far, than the amounts that can be charged for similar exposure online.

The culprits for these threats to journalism will sound familiar: they are services built upon the Web. Many of those advertising dollars have gone not to competing journalism outfits, but to the new intermediaries of the Web. In classified ads, much of the revenue has flowed to start-ups like Craig’s List. In the world of news, Google has found ways to profit from highly targeted advertisements to people who begin their searches online or via a mobile device. Social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, are getting a growing cut of the revenues that once sustained newsrooms, foreign bureaus, and the many expenses associated with running first-rate journalism outfits.

A comparison of the crises facing schools, libraries and journalism in a digital age makes for an interesting analogy, but it’s more than that. Yes, journalists, like teachers and librarians, are figuring out what it means to operate in a networked environment. Each of these institutions needs to answer the question of the role that they serve in a world where the Web – often, Google – is a first port of call for those seeking to become informed about something.

The more important connection among them is that schools, journalism and libraries are bedrock institutions in democracies. We need to support these institutions more in an era of the Web, not less, than we did before. We rely upon journalists to unearth and to contextualize stories that matter to our lives in a free and open society.  High quality journalism is essential to our ability to choose those who represent us or to vote on a direct referendum. The work of journalists helps to inform social movements, protest actions, and groundbreaking research. The work of the beat reporter covering City Hall keeps those in power (at least somewhat) honest. The months and months that an investigative reporter devotes to an in-depth story on the impact of fracking is as important as the months and months that a policy-maker might spend wrangling over an energy bill.

Democracies can’t afford to lose substantial numbers of journalists, teachers, and librarians. In an information-rich world, we as citizens need trusted guides and interpreters of the extraordinary array of facts and opinions that we can access digitally via the Web. Journalists, teachers, and librarians have every reason to make common cause – between and among themselves, but also with the next generation of technologists – during this transition to a digital age.

* * *

At its twenty-fifth anniversary, it might be tempting sit back and celebrate what the Web has given the world. The answer would be much, indeed, and it is worthwhile to acknowledge all that. I am deeply thankful for what it has made possible in terms of economic growth, human interconnectedness, and the development of new knowledge.

I prefer, though, to look ahead, in the spirit of the invention itself, to the challenges that lie before us. Those challenges include preserving the openness and the interoperability of the Web and the essential networks on which it rides. Those challenges are to use this tremendous gift to improve core democratic institutions, such as education, libraries, and journalism, in the public interest. In so doing, we will be creating institutions that will enable our youth – coming to age in a digital era – to build a brighter future for those who will follow.

The effect of our good decisions today could be to launch a generation of young people who use the Web to accomplish positive social change. The Web is a tool that can be used for ends that are pro-social or ends that are destructive. As we build out the next iteration of the Web and the institutions that rely on it, we ought to aim to inspire and enable young people to be innovative, creative, and engaged in civic life around them. In its best form, the Web can be a tool that conveys a sense of agency and possibility to those who have come to learn its ways and are facile with its use. The benefits for economic growth, cross-cultural understanding, and vibrant democratic institutions could be a powerful force for good, world-wide.

[This essay was published in Spanish in Politica Exterior (Foreign Policy) No. 161, September-October 2014.]

Do We Still Need Libraries?

The New York Times is running one of its Room for Debate series on the future of libraries.  The four debaters (so far) are Luis Herrera, director of the San Francisco Public Library (and a board member of the Digital Public Library of America); Susan Crawford, visiting professor at Harvard Law School; Buffy J. Hamilton, a school librarian at Creekview High School in Canton, Georgia; and Berkman fellow Matthew Battles.  All four of their essays are excellent. And each of them answers the “debate” question in the affirmative: yes, we do still need libraries.  Of course, they are right.

It is worth backing up and asking why this question even applies.  What would lead us to question the library as an institution?  After all, as the authors point out, they are more popular than ever by many metrics, including how many people still walk through their doors.  Why is this even a “debate”?

It’s a debate because too many people think that we don’t need libraries when we have the Internet.  That logic couldn’t be more faulty.  We actually need libraries more (as Luis Herrera points out) now that we have the Internet, not less.  But we have to craft a clear and affirmative argument to make that case to those who don’t work in libraries or focus deeply on their operations.  Librarians have to make a political and public case, which is too rarely being made effectively today.

These days, in most towns in America, the same debate recurs each year when budget time rolls around: what’s the purpose of a library in a digital age?  Put more harshly: why should we spend tax dollars, in tough economic times, on a library when our readers can get much of what they need and want from the Internet?  In the era of Google and Amazon, the pressure is on libraries.  Every year, as more and more library users become e-book readers, the debate rages a bit more fiercely.

The annual conversation about libraries and money is hard in the context of academic institutions, too.  Libraries have long stood at the core of great schools and universities.  In many fields, the library is in fact the laboratory for the scholars, whether in the humanities or in law.  The texts, images, and recordings in these libraries are the raw materials out of which scholars and their students make new knowledge.  But increasingly, scholars are turning to digital sources – databases, commercial online journals, Google Scholar – to do their work.  Does every university and every school need to invest millions of dollars each in buying the same texts and bringing them to their campus?

The future of libraries is in peril.  Librarians and those of us who love libraries need to make an affirmative argument for investments in the services, materials, and physical spaces that libraries comprise.  This argument must be grounded in the needs of library users, today and in the future.  The argument needs to move past nostalgia and toward a bright and compelling future for libraries as institutions, for librarians as professionals, and for the role that libraries play in vibrant democracies.

Many libraries are making this argument, implicitly, through their good and promising works.  You need go no further than a visit to Luis’s San Francisco Public Library to see how exciting libraries can be today.  The Chicago Public Library, under new director Brian Bannon, is doing many promising things, including the MacArthur Foundation-funded YouMedia.  The public libraries in New York — I’m most familiar with NYPL and the Queens Borough libraries — have extraordinary things underway.  So does Amy Ryan at the Boston Public Library.  There are cool things happening in Chattanooga, by all accounts.  And these are just big public libraries.  Many academic libraries and small public, county, school, and special libraries are busily charting a new and positive future.  We need to get the stories of these leaders to be the narrative about libraries today.

We can establish a bright future for libraries.  I think it can be done by working together to take ten steps:

  1. We must redefine libraries for a digital-plus era.  By digital-plus, I mean that materials are born digital and then rendered in a variety of formats, some print (traditional books and hard-copies of images) and some digital (e-books, interactive games, image files, audio and visual works in digital format).
  2. The basis of this redefinition must be demand-driven, firmly grounded in what people need from libraries today and in the future.
  3. In this process of redefinition, we must account for both the physical and the analog.  Both have a place in libraries of the future.
  4. Libraries must become networked institutions.  There’s much to be learned from how networked organizations function that will help libraries (and librarians as professionals) to thrive.  Library schools and i-schools have a big role to play, as do funders and organizations that focus on professional development for librarians.
  5. Librarians should only seek to do those things that need doing and where libraries have comparative advantage in serving the public interest.
  6. Librarians should seek common cause with authors, agents, editors, and publishers, but if that fails, libraries may need to take on new functions.
  7. Librarians should seek common cause with technologists, inside and outside of libraries, in the public and private sectors — and develop strong technical (coding, information architecture, design, etc.) skills across the board within the library profession.
  8. Library spaces should function more like labs, where people interact with information and make new knowledge.
  9. Librarians should work together, along with private- and public-sector technologists, to create a common digital infrastructure and build from there.  We should draw upon hacker culture and the lessons of the creation of the Internet in order to do so.  (I have in mind the DPLA as a big part of the way forward on this front.)
  10. Libraries should maintain physical spaces but use them for lots of things other than the storage of physical materials, as the Room for Debate essayists make plain.

The argument that libraries are obsolete in a digital era is faulty.  But those of us who love libraries need to make the case for why that’s so.  This case has everything to do with libraries finding compelling ways to support education, helping people to learn, thrive, and be the best civic actors we can be.  We have to recreate the sense of wonder and importance of libraries, as public spaces, as research labs, as maker-spaces, and as core democratic institutions for the digital age.

Bibliotheca Class Final Projects Presentations

We had a final session of our Bibliotheca class today at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which I am co-teaching with Jeffrey Schnapp. We used the time to explore the final projects of each of the students, some alone and some in groups.  As a group, they are terrific, ranging from proposals to redesign and reuse particular library spaces (the Ashland (MA) Public Library, to expose more knowledge about the Nyanza Superfund site in the town, as well as familiar Harvard spaces, including the Loeb Library and the Lamont Library) to proposals for how RFIDs and wayfinding on mobile devices can improve the learning experience in and around libraries.

Two take-aways from today:

1) Process/Pedagogy: I’ve loved the porousness of this class.  One of the expert reviewers today of the student projects was Kelly Miller, director of teaching and learning services for the 26,000-student-serving libraries at UCLA and recent CLIR fellow.  Kelly read an earlier blog post I wrote about the class, said she’s be willing to visit, and flew across the country to participate in class.  Others came from various corners of the Harvard Library staff, including my own home (the Harvard Law School Library — especially Jeff Goldenson, who jumped into the class with both feet, including co-producing a final presentation with a student in the class).  The conversation has been richer for the diverse participation and willingness of the students to engage with an expansive group of experts who have come in and out of the classroom space and time.  Ann Whiteside and her team at the Loeb Library have been very generous with their space and their insights, as well; it’s been fun to be teaching in an embedded way in the physical space of a forward-looking library.

2) Substance: The projects have mostly touched on the connection between the physical and virtual, one way or another.  (To be clear: some wonderful and promising projects, including proposals for new types of carrels and text-based explication of the meaning of libraries from hundreds of years ago in Europe, didn’t take up the virtual much at all.)  One of the things the students helped me to see, in new and dynamic ways, is the connectivity, not the separateness, of the two.  It’s crucial, I believe, to see the virtual and the physical as deeply and meaningfully connected.  Several projects considered how the physical might be integrated into the virtual; others went the other way around, and looked at how the virtual experience might connect into the physical in libraries.  We’ve come a long way, I think, in libraries in a short time in this way.  There’s no good case being made for seeing digital libraries as separate from the physical.  Our users do not distinguish much between these environments, and we as those who work in, and design, libraries, shouldn’t either.  Strength and insight comes from deep integration between the two.

I was equally struck by what a nice job the students did in doing homework about the background of the communities involved.  One project considers the public library concept in particular developing countries contexts in Africa; others considered towns and cities in the United States and elsewhere around the world.  The ideas by these design and architecture (and other graduate) students were well-grounded in not just the philosophy and history behind libraries, but also the important community contexts for which they’ve been designing.  It’s very heartening, and speaks well of the GSD’s training program.

William Rawn Associates, Architects come to Bibliotheca Class (as do David Lamberth, Matthew Sheehy, and Michael Barker)

We are just thrilled to have William Rawn and his colleague Cliff Gayley of William Rawn Associates in our Bibliotheca class (which I’m co-teaching with Jeffrey Schnapp) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design this morning.  They’ve designed the Cambridge Public Library’s main building, as well as the Rochester Public Library.  They are also discussing two branch library designs: Mattapan Branch and the East Boston Branch of the Boston Public Library.  (These live-blog notes of class are bound to be rough.  The conversation brings together practitioners from design, architecture, and library sciences with faculty and students.)

Cliff starts with the premise that physical space in libraries remains important, even in a digital era.  The theme of democracy is important to them.  They cite the grandeur of the Boston and New York Publics; the loveliness, but aloofness and apartness, of the H. H. Richardson libraries; and the classic American image of the Carnegie libraries as antecedents.

In working on the Cambridge Public Library project, they give great credit to Susan Flannery, the Cambridge city librarian, for teaching them and providing inspiration for the design. The space, Susan told the architects, is that the library must be clearly a “library” as soon as you walk in, with books as an organizing force in what you see as soon as you walk in.  She wanted to make the library a “town common.”  They have circulated 1,000,000 books in two years.  In a city of 100,000 people, that means 5 books a year.  The insights from visionary librarians are crucial to successful design, they argued.  They also described the helpfulness of the 50 meetings that they conducted in Cambridge, which was especially extensive as such processes go.  An open structure, with reading spaces along the first floor, were important aspects of the design.

In describing the Mattapan branch library of Boston, Bill Rawn echoed the democratic themes they hit earlier in the conversation.  He called the building “an outpost of learning and opportunity in Mattapan.”  The size is about 20,000 square feet.  The kids and young adults in the building are behind glass that allows for visibility and openness, but also allows them to make some noise.  The young adult section was designed to be the biggest of the 26 branch libraries in Boston.  “Robust technology and fun furniture” with “very flexible” spaces including “lots of seating” in the young adult areas were important.  With leaner staffing in public libraries, the circulation desk needed to allow for good sight lines throughout the building.  They’ve also designed a teleconferencing room into the Mattapan branch.

They also described the Rochester Public Library, embedded in the heart of the city as a “civic space,” and the East Boston branch library (smaller than Mattapan: 14,000 – 15,000 square feet), near Logan Airport.  In both of these instances, they talked about the importance of the discussion as to where the site would be.  Boston Public Librarian Amy Ryan’s vision for the public library spaces were very open and transparent, with noisier areas behind glass for kids and others who wish to be less contemplative while there.

Gayley and Rawn described a series of principles that they brought to each of these designs.  Democratic access to information; openness and transparency; the story of immigrants and libraries as places of opportunity (now, expressed in part through access to technology); and the importance of local politics all popped up as key themes throughout the session.  I wish I had caught them all verbatim as they went by; I’ll try to get the slides and post them somewhere, if we can.

Rawn: “we think architecture students are not taught to listen as well as they might be.”  The projects tend to come out of the student’s head — which is great for training in design.  Listening is about hearing from the users (library patrons) as well as the representatives of the clients (the librarians and politicians, in public library projects).

Schnapp: the iterative, consultative process is new to our era.  The big New York and Boston Public Libraries, for instance, were about patrician donors and design processes that were closed.  The Cambridge Public Library process couldn’t be more different than the patrician approach.  (Bill Rawn mentioned how much he loves the interior of the NYPL main building, even though it is antithetical to his approach and ideals in many respects.)

Schnapp also asks about the natural light that appears to be an emphasis across all the examples they showed.  We had a good back-and-forth about the value of natural light today to patrons in these spaces, but also the challenges associated with using natural light while reading materials through technological devices.

I happen to love the new Cambridge Public Library’s main branch.  It’s one of my favorite public spaces in the world.  We’re lucky to have it in our backyard.

* * *

The second half of class, we have three Harvard insiders with us: Prof. David Lamberth (former chair of the Library Implementation Work Group, charged with redesigning the library system at Harvard); Mike Barker (my completely amazing former colleague at HLS Library, now in the central Harvard Library office); and Matthew Sheehy (head of access services and our off-site depository).  They are teeing up the hard problems of space in the Harvard Library transition.

They put on the table a big idea.  Think about the collection as one collection at Harvard and the physical spaces as one physical space, in principle contiguous.  When you bring back a book, for instance, it just goes where it goes, with barcode and associated RFID and stays where it is returned.  Instead, focus our efforts on building perfect shelves for those things that need to be curated in that fashion.  Focus our organizational conceptual efforts on building perfect Shakespeare shelves, and move other materials around, and quit investing in getting everything to its current shelves.  There would have to be lots of digital investment: scanning of tables of contents, development of online finding systems (like StackView/ShelfLife); and other innovations that would make everything findable.  How much of this material do we really need to have, on campus, in a local library, for our current constituencies?  One effect would be to free up a lot of space into the libraries, which might attract faculty into the renovated, freed-up spaces.

A clarification from Lamberth: the “perfect shelves” should not be fixed.  They should be ad hoc and recreated quickly on the fly.  Various things will be more popular at certain moments, causing some issues of priority; but these are practical issues, not that difficult to solve (other than the politics).  He’s not against classification.  It’s just that bar codes would, in his design, replace the old “shelf lists.”  Mike Barker clarifies that students make “perfect shelves” all the time: it’s what they do in carrels, he says.

A great question from the audience: if that idea is right, then you are rejecting the idea of buying to collect and moving to just-in-time, not just-in-case, right?  Lamberth: it depends.  Collection development used to be done by faculty members in consultation with bibliographers, Lamberth said, in a way that is no longer true.  The buying decisions today are made by librarians on their own.  The obscure materials we need to invest in and collect for the long term; the things sold in Amazon we should not.  (One bibliographer: much of what Lamberth says is true, but we need to avoid having every academic library buying the same materials.  There are still may materials that are not as available as we’d like, or kept in as good conditions that we could here, even imperfectly.)

David W.: wouldn’t we want to make digital versions of those privileged perfect shelves?  The problem is mostly one of expense.  We can’t spend so much on the present at the expense of one century or two centuries from now, says Lamberth.