Today I'm to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation EU Public Library Advocacy Roundtable in Brussels.
In the meeting we discuss the changing role of public libraries. To the meeting we got a not yet published report, in which there is a very interesting analysis by Dan Mount
"While the act of seeking information from a public library may not strike everyone as innovative, the fact is that in today’s modern world many familiar institutions are much more than they were in the pre-digital age. In today’s digital context, public libraries are no longer just where you go to review a dusty collection of First World War poetry or look through local newspaper archives (although there is certainly still substantial value in those activities). As a digital revolution sweeps across Europe bringing rapid growth in the cross-border availability of online content, media and services, public libraries present a community-based network delivering frontline digital enablement facilities with the power to engage with groups and individuals that other public services fail to reach.
Of course, public libraries will not automatically be seen by many policy makers as innovative institutions because of their long and established history of serving communities across Europe. But policy makers need to be shown how public libraries are now acting in increasingly innovative ways to harness the newfound opportunities and resources of the online world and share them with disadvantaged and marginalised communities. Many libraries combine a number of high social value functions, including book clubs, homework clubs, and youth clubs; and provide a venue for a range of cohesion building and inclusive community activities. They also offer free access to information technology, online resources, digital literacy training and can direct citizens to key sources of online information (e-health, e-government, e-procurement and e-learning services). If we add all this together we see that many public libraries have successfully built a multidimensional business model for delivering and assisting social innovation and access to information. This combined model of good practice should be documented, promoted and extended across the entire European network of public libraries.
While it is clear that public libraries would benefit from repositioning and rebranding themselves (and their capabilities) in the eyes of policy makers, it is also important not to overlook the significant and substantial value public libraries have always provided in their pre-digital form. Effort should be made to assess many of the supposedly intangible benefits offered by public libraries (a trusted, well-known brand, a neutral community space open to all, a gateway for social and cultural interaction and integration) and highlight a) how these characteristics are valuable in and of themselves; and b) how in many instances they contribute to the delivery of more tangible policy outcomes in relation to social inclusion, engagement with the learning process and enhanced employment opportunities.
One credible option for reconciling the need to rebrand public libraries with the importance of celebrating and recognising their longstanding social contribution is referenced in Jan Braeckman’s 2010 paper “Repositioning European Public Libraries”. Jan references the influential work of American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg who first coined the term the “Third Place” in his book “The Great Good Place” published in 1989. The Third Place (also commonly referred as the Third Space) is essentially a community building which offers a social environment which can be set apart from the traditional environments of home and work. Oldenburg saw the Third Space as an essential anchor of community life which facilitates and fosters broader and more creative interactions amongst citizens based on informality, accessibility, proximity and neutrality. As such the Third Space plays a crucial role in the maintenance and enrichment of civil society, democracy, civic responsibility and civic engagement. The community functions and properties of most public libraries correspond closely with that definition.
Therefore, using the concept of public libraries as the Third Space (see diagram on the front cover of this report) could enable us to rebrand them as innovative forward looking institutions (in the context of digital empowerment) without overlooking the key community and social functions that libraries have long fulfilled in advance of the advent of the digital age. This sidesteps the reductionist simplicity of merely branding public libraries merely as pseudo-job centres or digital hubs, and allows us to present them as something more than that, as entities which are greater than the sum of their multiple community functions (although those functions must of course be spelt out)."
I look forward to reading the entire report and to share it when it is published.