Community Content in Public Libraries

(Note: This op-ed was originally written for the Washington Post in May, 1998. Freely distributable in any form for noncommercial use.)

Public libraries are rich repositories of stories, ideas, information, opinions, and culture - - and are places where the human urge to communicate is celebrated with great gusto.

But did you ever stop to think about whose stories, whose ideas, whose information, whose opinions, and whose culture are celebrated at the public library? Almost always, the content of public libraries is from people who live in other cities, states, countries.

Often that content is interesting and lively. But the opportunity for you to meet and connect with the creators of that information is virtually nonexistent.

Consider what would happen if libraries set aside shelf-space for locally produced content. Locally produced books, sure, but also locally produced music, video documentaries, multimedia CD-ROMs, poetry, newsletters, photographic collections and the like. What would happen is that people within a neighborhood could connect with one another's creative imaginations. What a novel idea! In a public library!

Libraries today are reinventing themselves, holding onto the best practices of the past, while adopting new, invigorating practices. Community residents should relish the chance to shape the new form of libraries.

We need to remember that libraries exist to serve community needs. If a community feels that a library should expand its offering of locally produced content, then the library should be both receptive and enthusiastic about meeting that community need. The idea here is not to replace libraries entire contents, but to supplement existing library content with the creative work of people in the neighborhood.

Here's what happens when two people from the same neighborhood connect with each other's ideas and creative inspirations. A bond is formed. Two people know something about each other that they didn't know before. And we are no more, nor less, than the sum total of the bonds in our lives.

Have you ever been moved by a poem? Well, near where you live a tremendously talented poet lives. Ever laughed aloud at an author's witty remarks? The neighborhood wit lives down the street from you. Have you ever caught your breath seeing a photograph with indescribable grace? That photographer lives next door.

A vast transformation in communications is taking place as people rethink themselves as both information producers and consumers. We need to tap into libraries as the central place where locally produced ideas and information can be shared.

How can overworked library staff decide which locally produced content materials should get shelf space? The answer is quite simple. The Friends of the Library groups can take on the role of recommending to the library the best of locally produced content. And as more and more locally produced content takes shape in digital form, the shelf-space requirement continually shrinks.

And if locally produced content is circulated, then a single library shelf could accommodate up to three shelves worth of materials, for at any given time two-thirds of the locally produced content would be checked out of the library.

If you care about community building, and the connecting of human beings via the creative process, you need to get yourself over to a meeting of your local Friends of the Library group. Your voice, your talents, your vision are needed in molding the future shape of public libraries.

We can build libraries to be whatever shape we want them to be. And you and I can decide the ways that libraries can best best be used for meeting community needs. The possibilities are tantalizing, if only more people would step up to the plate.

Phil Shapiro

In 1998 the author was recognized with an award from the Friends of Chevy Chase DC Library for his volunteer work. He and his friend Jeffrey Aaron taught basic Internet skills to 500 people over a span of 4 years, between 1995 and 1999.

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