OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As you may know, the Digital Public Library of America will officially launch on April 18-19. Interestingly, this launch will take place not online but at a place–the Boston Public Library. I guess that’s because you can’t really hang out at the Digital Public Library.

As you also may know, on March 28 Amazon acquired Goodreads, much to the chagrin of many library-ish types who are apparently flocking to LibraryThing. I dislike the idea of monopolies, so I say the migration is probably a good thing. However, the truth is that you can’t hang out at Amazon, Goodreads, or LibraryThing.

You can’t hang out at Google, OverDrive, or on an Adobe Content Server, either. as much as I like the idea of the library as publisher concept pioneered by Jamie LaRue and company.

Where can you hang out? At a place. Places like these public libraries showcased in a portfolio of images by photographer Robert Dawson for an exhibition held in the San Francisco main library back in April-June of 2011–Public Library: An American Commons. Thanks to my daughter for posting the link on my Facebook wall. I don’t remember being aware of this collection at the time; however, this exhibit went live about a month before I started blogging… and paying closer attention.

The thing that sets libraries apart from other content and information providers like DPLA, Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and OverDrive is a sense of place. Library as place. Digital content is a great advance and will only become more prevalent and important in the future. Easy, online access to information, resources, and entertainment is expected and necessary to a 21st-century, computer-literate society. Libraries cannot fail to meet that expectation.

But what will happen to our sense of place if we focus predominately on acquiring more and better e-resources? There are other, more powerful entities that will be able to provide these resources better than us. But what they can’t do better than us is provide a community commons. Or is having a community commons no longer part of the equation that equals library sustainability?

The library as place is not a new or novel idea, but perhaps it is one that we need to revisit from time to time. Having a place sets us apart. In our places, we can do things like create Makerspaces with 3-D printers and laser cutters that may attract a whole new group of users. Does it make more sense to invest in digital content that may be even more widely accessible sooner rather than later–without regard to the library as provider– or to invest in technology that brings people together in a physical space in a way that the intangibles cannot?

Ideally, we would invest in both. But we must make tough choices with limited funds. And that’s where the mission of public libraries becomes essential to making those choices. Is retaining our sense of place part of our mission? Or does fulfilling the mission of public libraries now transcend our spaces making them irrelevant? If our spaces become irrelevant, then I fear we do, too.

There’s no place like a place. The evidence suggests that our libraries are still busy places. But counting library visits is not necessarily indicative of the value of the library space itself. Enhancing the value of the place is something that no strictly online service provider can do. They can beat us at delivering digital content, but they can’t offer to open their doors and let us in.

Our doors are open, but is what’s inside enough?

The libraries photographed for the slideshow that my daughter shared with me range from rustic to modern to majestic to modest and everything in between. They are all beautiful places to the people who use them. I happen to believe that the concept of the public library as the American (or whatever country you’re from) commons is a beautiful thing, too. Digital content will not save our spaces. As Josh Wallaert writes:

“What’s at stake here is more than access to a room full of books. The modern American public library is reading room, book lender, video rental outlet, internet café, town hall, concert venue, youth activity center, research archive, history museum, art gallery, homeless day shelter, office suite, coffeeshop, seniors’ clubhouse and romantic hideaway rolled into one. In small towns of the American West, it is also the post office and the backdrop of the local gun range. These are functions that the digital public libraries of the future will never be able to recreate.”