January 04, 2011, 2:00 PM — Public libraries are undergoing huge changes in the shift from analog to digital media. Some large city libraries have hired digital strategists to help them take appropriate steps in this transition. Smaller or poorer libraries don't have the benefit of having a full-time staff person working on the transition. To keep those libraries from falling behind, it makes sense to devise a national plan for this transition - a plan that will unfold in increments over the next ten years. With such a plan in place, libraries - and the communities they serve - will have a good idea of where their own libraries are in the transition.
Truth is, nobody really knows what public libraries will look like in 2020. That doesn't stop us from imagining how they could best serve the community in the digital age. And the time for having conversations about that topic is now. We can't wait until 2015 to discuss these kinds of things.
At the heart of a National Library Transition Plan is a broad understanding of the core purposes of public libraries. Yes, public libraries are about books, but they are also about so much more than books.
Consider the oldest public library in Ohio, the Dayton Public Library, founded in 1805. At that time, Dayton was a very small town - with probably fewer than 500 residents. (In 1820, Dayton's population was 1000.) With a population smaller than some modern apartment buildings, the town of Dayton, Ohio, set up a public library in 1805. About 90 years later two youngsters from Dayton walked into that library and started reading magazine articles about people in other countries who were attempting to build a flying machine. The Wright Brothers were voracious readers. I can picture them sitting at the library thumbing through magazines. The Dayton Public Library might have been where they read about German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal, whose gliding experiments inspired their own.
So it's no small coincidence that the first public library in Ohio happened to be located in the same town where airplanes were invented. Libraries are about books, but they're also about much more than books. They're about ideas and invention and imagination and play and curiosity and wonder and hope. Yes, libraries are all about hope. They are houses of possibilities.
Whenever a new public library is being planned, community members are invited to a brainstorming session to answer the question, "What would you like to see at your public library?" That's a great starting point, but it should not be an ending point. People in any community may or may not be able to fully articulate all their needs. Nor may they understand the new kinds of library services being made possible in the digital age. Any community earnestly planning their new public library ought to be seeking the best ideas from both near and far.