An evolving, essential role for libraries

technology / Article

September 30, 2014 by Dan Cohen

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Knight News Challenge: Libraries closes today, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. The challenge offers applicants a chance to share in $2.5 million by focusing on the question “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” Below, Dan Cohen, founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, writes about the essential role libraries play in the democratization of information.

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Libraries occupy a special place in our society. As the approval ratings for nearly all public institutions continue to plunge in the United States, libraries are treasured by a remarkable 90 percent, and they are used at all stages of life, from ages 3 to 93. People visit libraries for lifelong learning and entertainment, for Internet access and digital resources, for job searches and local meetings, and to research and contribute to the history of their communities. In many places in America and even more so around the world, libraries are the only available point of access to critical knowledge.

But as central as libraries are in our communities—in the U.S. there are 16,000 public libraries, more branches than Starbucks—there are worries about their continuing roles and future. Over the last decade so many of us have started reading on devices for which the convenience is great, but the lock-in, with specific software and digital rights management, is even greater. Libraries have found e-books hard to purchase, and although publishers have become more open to licensing e-books to public libraries in the past few years, they treat those e-books like physical books—restricting borrowing to one user at a time—and have engaged in pricing for libraries in ways that many have seen as unfair. The Web, not the library, has become the starting point for most research.

Libraries have not stood still, of course. Many libraries have added options for e-reading and for viewing a wide range of digital resources without a trek to their buildings. And within those buildings, some libraries have experimented in imaginative ways with the notion of the library patron as a creator as well as a consumer. Video-editing stations, 3-D printers and maker spaces have all found homes in libraries. Libraries have also taken advantage of their local connections in ways that the digital giants cannot; for instance, several libraries curate music from their regions, while others have made common cause with artists.

At the Digital Public Library of America, we are proud of our work with hundreds of libraries, as we help them bring their materials online and share them with the world. But there’s so much left to do, on so many fronts. It’s exciting to think about the energy that the Knight News Challenge will bring to thinking about the future of libraries, and I’m looking forward to the creativity that springs forth. Democratic access to knowledge is a profound idea that requires constant tending and revitalization.

To submit an entry for the Knight News Challenge or provide feedback on other submissions, visit newschallenge.org. Knight News Challenge: Libraries closes today, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, at 5 p.m. ET. Winners will be announced in January.

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