Common Libraries

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Annemarie Naylor:

"We believe there is an urgent and pressing need to evolve libraries in England so that they may serve as bastions of a 21st century knowledge commons, functioning as trusted and impartial platforms for the production, exchange and consumption of knowledge and know-how. We are therefore using our expertise in design, technology, community engagement and social enterprise to work closely with library service users and providers to that end. Our ultimate aim is to empower people to co-design and deliver new library services in our increasingly open source society, such that they are responsive to technological advancement and fast-changing local needs, as well as positioned to make the most of emergent socio-economic opportunities. The intention, then, is to revitalise the public library ethos and render library services more relevant, useful and sustainable in their appeal to (and involvement of) broad-ranging audiences in our digital age.

The Common Libraries initiative flows from the drivers of change in UK library services, attempts in the United States to reconfigure libraries as spaces to facilitate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills development, together with wider developments in the digital landscape. It is coloured by the endeavours of the Open Source and Creative Commons movements, as well as the enthusiasm for hacking and making of the communities upon whose activities our first project is based. In the course of launching the initiative to engage a wider community of interest in Spring 2014, we were encouraged to explore the potential for Common Libraries to draw upon the peer-to-peer and sharing economy movement in future – culminating in receipt of an international OuiShare Award. Helpfully, this reads across to the efforts of those who are re-imagining libraries as contemporary platforms or, else, seeking to enhance or evolve them through automated book share services and personal portable library networks (PPLNs) – such that we have already begun to iterate our starting point.

We are, perhaps uniquely, persuaded that there could also be merit in exploring the potential for elements of libraries (specifically, library staff and users) to form Distributed Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) in future – reflecting, in particular, upon the pioneering work of the Ethereum Project and, related to that, Eris, by Project Douglas. Early thinking, in this regard, concerns the potential to safeguard our social knowledge economy through the evolution of DAOs for the purposes of what we’ve begun to term #humansearch – an ethical and empathic stand, if you will, in the face of corporate search dominance and big data proponents; both of which are, increasingly, parasitic and de-humanising phenomena in our contemporary knowledge landscape, and fast re-engineering themselves in relation to advancements in Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality as well as the Internet of Things. But, they could well be designed in such a way as to also integrate with PPLN nodes and ‘user-librarians’ in future.

Finally, we have sought from the outset to enable income generation by common ‘library enterprises’ through, for example, the introduction of value add membership schemes, joint venturing and ‘micro enterprise’ development with creative users. In this important respect, we recognise the challenges facing others who might wish to experiment with elements of Common Libraries, and acknowledge the place of cooperativism and community enterprise in facilitating (even, augmenting) our otherwise open-by-default approach. As such, Common Libraries are liable to remain deeply rooted in the notion and actuality of dynamic and aspirational communities - exploring, engaging and growing with the unfolding 21st century in a playful and creative manner to contribute to the Open Knowledge project. They are, then, more akin to the iterative configuration processes of community development - a hopeful and, at times, speculative journey - than to a definitive route map to a known or sought-after destination. However, they are also grounded in the recognition that we now urgently need to reappraise our approach to financing library service transformation and, indeed, continual iteration if libraries are to endure through and beyond the 21st century in relation to our digital operating environment.

Unsurprisingly, we’re eager to help prototype most things in keeping with what we regard as a contemporary public library ethos - from community publishing platforms to open data access and re-mixing points. The learning amassed from this first project will, nonetheless, be of particular interest if you’re a library service provider interested in forging links with hackers and makers in your local area; considering the introduction of a hack and/or makerspace in your library building; or want to explore how to develop an integrated library-hack-makerspace - and, all the more, if you share our belief that libraries re-imagined as community publishing platforms might go some way towards nurturing a more relevant, vibrant and sustainable model for library services in future.

The first research and prototyping project undertaken to establish Common Libraries, then, built upon the learning amassed by Chattanooga Public Library in the course of establishing the 4th Floor and, in particular, the work of the community responsible for the Waiting Room in St Botolph’s, Colchester. It was designed to inform and work with enterprising organisations to put in place measures to begin prototyping the library of the future, today – where the library of the future is taken to mean an institution that places equal emphasis upon knowledge production, exchange and consumption in the service of rendering libraries more relevant, viable and resilient. Specifically, the Waiting Room is founded upon an innovative ‘borrow/barter/buy/bespoke’ approach to business integration for library-hack-makerspaces. This is intended to help maintain the ethos of a public library, where its function to ‘facilitate access to all’ is concerned, at the same time as introducing an income generation or common ‘library enterprise’ dimension to operations. Simply stated, we sought to research and take steps to replicate / iterate elements of the Waiting Room initiative elsewhere over a period of three months and, with that, begin to explore the potential to establish an income generating library-hack-makerspace network with a grant from Arts Council England." (email, June 2014)