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February 8, 2015

Libraries as community centers…of meaning

Well, it’s snowing in Boston and I’m in Florence. Italy. (I’m SO sorry, Ann!) I’m here to keynote an OCLC EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) conference about libraries.

After three major revisions, I believe that on Tuesday I’m going to propose thinking about libraries as community centers. But not the usual sort where local people gather, work, socialize, play, learn … all good things, for sure. In addition, I’m going to suggest that they view themselves as community centers of meaning.

I know it sounds silly, and I’m open to better phrases, but I think it’s not entirely pointless. (The idea arose in a conversation with Robert Fleming, executive director of the Emerson College library. I’m teaching a course at Emerson this semester.)

The idea is simple. It used to be that once a user checked a book out of the library, the library was out of the loop. The user read it at home, talked about it with friends or a Significant Other, maybe spent an evening with a book club discussing it. The library might be slightly in the loop if they enabled users to review or rate books, or if they have an awesome Awesome Box. But even so, the pickings were pretty slim.

Now, of course, users are likely to talk on line about what they’re reading. At least as important, the library has tons of metadata that it can use to gauge how relevant an item is to its community, and even get a glimmer of what makes it relevant. Of course, much of this information is private, but there are ways to use it without violating anyone’s privacy.

If a community can be made more aware of what it’s finding meaningful and relevant, it can learn from itself, push its own boundaries, unearth new ideas, and find ever-better disagreements.

Note that I am not suggesting that libraries curate community meaning. Rather, libraries can provide services to facilitate the development of community meaning, making the community aware of itself. And this is of course an additional opportunity for librarians to contribute their own expertise at contextualizing and expanding our understanding.

Who is currently the custodian of community meaning? No one. Who is in the best position to be that custodian and facilitator? Your local library.

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