This post is based on remarks I presented during a Digital Dialog at the University of Maryland, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, on 9/25/2012.
I believe that libraries, archives and museums share a common need to aggressively promote their social mission. While there are fundamental variances among these organizations, current trends are driving them closer together, including a demand to justify relevance in an era of profound change in how people seek and use information.
Libraries, archives and museums also have a pressing imperative to deal with digital content. Each manages different kinds of content for different reasons, but they share the same challenge in keeping it accessible over time. All institutions face a common need to raise public awareness about what is at stake for our culture in terms of preserving significant digital material. The danger of digital loss is growing along with the volume of digital information, and there much work to do in educating people about that risk.
Cultural heritage organizations have a great opportunity to fulfill their mission through what I loosely refer to as personal digital archiving. The heart of the matter is that individuals and families are building large collections of personal digital content, and they need advice and help to keep this content accessible into the future. Cultural heritage institutions, as preserving entities with a public service orientation, are well-positioned to help people deal with their growing–and fragile–personal digital archives. This is a way for institutions to connect with their communities in a new way, and to thrive.
I’m going to focus on public libraries, both because I think they are at the greatest risk and also because they also have the greatest opportunity to benefit from a focus on news kinds of services.
Libraries are obviously facing tough times. The Huffington Post recently ran a series called Libraries in Crisis. The lead article is headlined Can the American Library Survive? and features a litany of sad stories from communities across the country. There are two clear-cut issues at work here. First, the state and local governments that fund public libraries are under dire financial pressure. Second, there is a case to be made that at least some of the traditional functions of libraries have been supplanted by information technology. The result is budget cuts and reduced services for libraries nearly everywhere.
To be sure, public libraries still enjoy a great deal of support. The HuffPo articles are replete with fierce testimonials in support of libraries as historic community resources and as essential public goods. Those of us of a certain age have warm memories about libraries as places where we discovered the joy of reading and discovering new knowledge. Experiences like this are deeply entwined in our values and lead to a reflexive ongoing support for the idea of public libraries.
As well, there is a wonderful egalitarian ideal involved. The Daily Kos blog, for example, recently wrote: “The library offers equal access to all. It is a truly public, truly socialized good. It doesn’t matter if you’re a homeless person or the mayor, when you walk-in to the library and present your library card, you have access to all of the same services.”
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators devotes a section to public libraries and declares that they are “the primary point of contact with the humanities” for many Americans. David Carr, in The Promise of Cultural Institutions, writes lyrically about the importance of libraries. He declares that they “are among the most purposeful and intentional of institutions. … Holding the culture’s memory and minding its continuing community.”
Sentiments such as these have helped public libraries survive to this point. But no one can count on this emotional response to last. Budgetary pressures will continue, and many communities already are facing gut-wrenching choices about cutting other priority services. The English writer Will Self also claims that a good deal of the visceral support for public libraries is based on nostalgic memories rather than the value of current services. A clear-eyed view, according to him, would reveal that many libraries—in the UK, anyway—offer less than the resources they are given. Regardless of how right or wrong Self is, a new generation is rising with their own impression of the utility of the library, and they will eventually be making the decisions.
It’s clear that many in the library community understand that a new direction is essential. Susan Hildreth, Director of the Institute for Museums and Library Services, said recently that “There is no doubt that the future success of libraries depends on their ability to change and evolve to meet the changing ways that people access and use information.”
This is the right idea, but I do quibble with the use of “evolve,” which implies gradual development. Given the profound change libraries face, “rapidly transform” is more appropriate. Libraries 2020, Imagining the Library of the not too distant future, a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, points to how information itself has morphed in ways that were impossible to imagine just a few decades ago.
Information used to be scarce, now it’s everywhere. It used to cost a lot, now it’s for the most part free. It used to be controlled by an elite, now it’s in the hands of everyone. Information used to be designed for one-way use but now it’s designed for sharing, participation and feedback. Pew also suggests that we now expect ready access to all kinds of information, including “location sensitive” details and data that provide immersive meaning in the context of our personal lives.
For libraries, these changes are amplified even more by new ideas about how people acquire knowledge. Lee Rainie from Pew spoke recently about the need for libraries to become an anchor for what he calls “learning communities.”
IMLS explores this situation further in Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills, which outlines the changes that cultural heritage organizations face. The adjustment centers on interactions with users. Most institutions, for example, traditionally serve as unquestioned centers of authority in delivering their content to users. In the new era, people expect more of a partnership. Users certainly continue to value the expertise of institutions and staff. But user communities also want the ability to influence how information is presented, accessed and understood. A big part of this is a push for closer relationships between staff and users with “a focus on audience engagement and experiences.”
The American Library Association recently issued Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library (PDF), which outlines the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities. The key message is institutions must shift along several dimensions of their operations. ALA presents a model to think about the strategic choices that institutions will have to make as they adapt to the needs of their communities.
As I interpret this model, the left dimension represents the way public libraries have traditionally functioned: as physical places dealing with physical objects, focusing on providing access to a common set of authoritative resources. The right dimension is often seen as “the library of the future” with features such as virtual services, broad-based community interaction, and the availability of specialized resources and equipment, such as fab labs and 3D printers. The bottom dimension is particularly interesting. It represents a choice between the library as a place where you can get standard published information and as a place where you find information that is unique to a particular community. At the far right along this dimension, the library actually is more like an archive—which is exactly the term the report uses. To fill this role, libraries will collect and preserve unique local materials, such as neighborhood histories, photographs of local people and places, as well as other multimedia resources.
It’s possible to image a library positioning itself at various points along each line, but it seems to me that moving one way on one dimension has the effect of pulling the other dimensions in the same direction. It also seems to me that enhanced community engagement, a focus on new media and facilitating locally-based collections is a great way for libraries to build public support and demonstrate value.
Economists talk about a concept known as “the value proposition,” which can be defined as a promise to the consumer that they will get a worthwhile experience in exchange for what it costs.
In a cultural heritage context, the term begs some pointed questions. Do institutions offer what the public wants? What makes institutional products, services, or messages valuable? Why should people, for example, care about a preservation mission? At the most basic level, addressing these questions comes down to getting and holding attention. Capturing even fleeting awareness is a challenge in today’s information-soaked environment. Ultimately a public institution must aim to form an emotional bond with its community, and this requires connecting with people in a way that matters to them personally. MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson talks about “social commerce for the cultural sector,” by which he means having institutions understand what their communities want and then using outreach to “sell” their services.
Perhaps the most important consideration for public libraries is the need to justify relevance in modern terms to modern audiences. To quote David Carr, “the incendiary institution… must understand its own energy and how that energy attracts and engages its users: How does it lead people in? . …Users will increase in number when the institution addresses them and the problems that learning presents to contemporary life.” Institutions should know that people—particularly younger people—need a different approach to lead people in. As Nick Poole from the UK Collections Trust says in his talk Powering the Museum of Tomorrow, “meeting the needs of future audiences demands new technologies and new ways of thinking.” Poole notes that today and tomorrow’s generations have grown up in a world designed around them. There is a basic expectation of being empowered to do what they want to do. Any aspect of life that doesn’t fit that model will be ignored.
Right now there is plenty of competition for people’s attention, commitment and passion. Even the notion of cultural heritage and who should collect it is up for grabs. Anyone can set up a social media account and declare themselves a curator of an archive of something or another. This is an empowering turn of events, but it also illustrates the competition for community attention that institutions face. Some cultural heritage organizations are quite aware of what they are up against. A “voter sentiment” report for the public library in Cromaine, MI, declared that “With the heavy competition for attention from all forms of media, libraries must work to market their value and services as much as any organization.”
I would argue that personal digital archiving is a key marketing advantage for public libraries. People are amassing large bodies of digital content such as photographs, videos and social media streams, but they have little in the way of guidance for managing and preserving this content. The need for help in this area is rapidly growing, both because the content is expanding and because its value—sentimental and otherwise—is becoming more apparent. As noted earlier, libraries already enjoy a trusted community role. This offers a unique and potentially very effective way for institutions to connect their mission with the personal concerns of contemporary citizens. In this way, people can develop a more expansive basis for supporting the role of the library in their community.
Several libraries around the country are already doing personal digital archiving outreach. I trace the origin of these activities primarily to two initiatives. The first is the Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program website, digitalpreservation.gov. Full disclosure: I manage the site along with NDIIPP social media activities. And, at the risk of self-aggrandizement, let me say that the personal digital archiving section on the site is one of the best for members of the public who are seeking basic help. Included are a series of tips for dealing with different kinds of content, along with a dozen short videos focusing on topics such as preserving digital photographs and the cultural importance of digital preservation. A recently added feature is the Personal Digital Archiving Day Kit, which provides guidance and information resources to help institutions hold public outreach sessions.
NDIIPP also works to raise awareness about digital preservation through a Twitter stream, @ndiipp, and a blog, The Signal. We’ve made a concerted effort to reach a broad audience. The NDIIPP team found the most effective way to draw in readers were posts about personal digital archiving topics. After nearly a year and a half of blogging, nearly all of the most-read posts cover personal digital archiving topics. Our hope is that some readers will take steps to preserve their digital memories. The most motivated of these people could be activated to connect with a local institution to seek more advice. We hope as well that interest in personal digital archiving can be leveraged to raise public awareness about the overall value of preserving all forms of cultural heritage in digital form.
The second initiative that has draw attention to personal digital archiving is Preservation Week, which ALA initiated in 2010 to raise awareness about institutional collections. ALA declared that “Libraries and other institutions can use Preservation Week to connect our communities through events, activities and resources that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections.” The organizational website includes a listing of events and a variety of preservation resources. The number of events has steadily grown, and in 2012 over 40 institutions in the U.S. and Canada held public outreach events, many of which included some discussion of personal digital archiving.
The public library impact on—and visibility from—digital archiving could be larger still in situations where libraries embrace the community archival function noted in the ALA report. A library could, for example, collect local government records, as well as historic community photographs, videos, blogs and oral histories. Librarians could work with citizens to build co-created community repositories to document local cultural heritage. Individuals could donate personal digital information to a repository, which has the dual benefit of expanding research material while also tightening the bond between the library and it’s community.
While this is a prospective vision for most public libraries, it can also be said—with apologies to William Gibson—that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. An exemplar is Digital Amherst, a project of the Jones Public Library of Amherst, Massachusetts. The web-based collection blends the library’s historical and literary resources with materials contributed by local residents. The Kansas City Public Library Missouri Valley Special Collections has a rich body of local content available online and solicits new material. The Fullerton, California, Public Library Local History Room has a repository with donations of materials by individuals as well as organizations. Digital Horizons, a consortium that includes the Fargo, ND, public library, solicits donations of digital photographs, videos and documents.
It is too soon to tell what the overall impact has been for personal digital archiving outreach and community repository development. My guess is that penetrating public attention will take some time. Personal collections need to keep expanding, and, sadly, a number need to be lost for the issue to resonate loudly enough to break through the torrent of other messages that people are exposed to every day. But I feel that public libraries have a great opportunity to capitalize on a growing need. And, given the rich set of personal digital archiving resources from the Library of Congress and others, launching a personal digital archiving outreach program is within the reach of nearly every public library.
The stakes are high. It could well be that personal digital archiving might turn out to be a test for how well libraries adapt to the changing needs of users. I don’t mean to say that other activities are less important, but libraries are in the business of managing information—and what people need is help managing their digital information. The other consideration is the extent to which libraries can continue to serve the role that Carr describes as “holding the culture’s memory and minding its continuing community.”
The memory of contemporary culture is now largely digital and huge parts of that memory are in the public’s hands. This is the reality that libraries face as they seek to thrive in the days ahead.