7 minute read  written by  . Published on April 7, 2015

Where can you do any or all of the following: grab a DVD, get on the internet, pick up the latest Malcolm Gladwell best-seller–all for free? Yes, we’re talking about your friendly neighborhood public library, of which there are 17,000 branches and outlets in the U.S.–three times the number of hospitals. The image of libraries is like motherhood and apple pie: it conjures up positive feelings, a place to explore and stumble upon new things, welcoming all. Everything in them is free and and meant to be used by the public, and no one is trying to sell you anything.

But in this digital age, an obvious question people might ask is: how relevant is an institution that is most notably associated with stacks of physical books? In a world with Google, Wikipedia, Kindle, and Netflix, do we still need libraries for content? With the ubiquity of smart phones, do we still need a place to access the internet? With a Starbucks on every other corner, do we still need libraries as public spaces–when was the last time a friend suggested that you “meet at the library?” In other words, are libraries the dinosaurs of public services?

Library Relevance in a Digital Future

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Try telling that to Mikael “Mick” Jacobsen, Learning Experiences Manager at Skokie Public Library, in Skokie, Illinois (population 65,000). He manages a full and part-time staff of over 20 that offers programs to the public, ranging from community discussions to introductory computer classes. It isn’t about just books, he states: “For libraries, books are a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end is to create a strong democracy.” Jacobsen makes the case that public libraries serve three main missions:

• To foster community – libraries are places that attract people from the community. Skokie Public Library is a good example: in a city of 65,000, in February there were an estimated 57,000 visits to the library and 37,000 visitors to its website, an indication that both the place and the electronic resources offered are of value. One popular program that won’t be replaced by an online visit any time soon is children’s story time, which remains quite popular.

Linda Gorham leads Multicultural Folktales in the Radmacher Meeting Room.

In fact, it is a well-observed phenomenon that individual patronage to libraries drops off after high school and college, but then picks up again once couples have young kids. It is hard to imagine a place becoming irrelevant when you see kids running around, with their imaginations ignited by the environment around them. Libraries also commonly hold relevant and topical events through book signings, classes, and workshops.

• To increase access – not all of the public are able to take advantage of technology equally, and one of the roles of libraries is to help those who need more assistance with technology. According to Kim Okahara, program analyst at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that funds museum and library initiatives, 99% of libraries offer free access to the internet, and for nearly two-thirds of them, they are the only source of free internet access in their communities. At Skokie Public Library, not only is there free internet and a drop-in computer lab, but the staff also help the technologically-challenged who have questions about operating their laptops, how to navigate the web, or are having issues with their Kindles or Nooks.

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In fact, if you think about it, libraries were relatively quick to jump on technology: they replaced paper card files with electronic catalogs pretty early on, and got people to use computer terminals long before the internet became a centerpiece of our modern lives. For people who don’t have resources or people around them to help them take advantage of modern technology, the library can be a vital source of assistance.

• Provide learning opportunities – libraries have traditionally been places for people to learn, whether it is for students, adults exploring new interests, or career-seekers. Although a great deal of information is now available on the internet, libraries still have specialized resources, and staff who are experienced offering guidance in many areas. For example, Skokie Public Library has licenses to a variety of paid databases and resources, such as Hoovers Online, LexisNexis, and Lynda.com. The library also, like many others, offers a variety of free in-person basic technology classes, such as using an iPad, and learning to write in HTML. This last quarter Skokie Public Library taught over 120 classes, and thus is a non-trivial source of digital education in the community.

Synergy between Libraries and MOOCs

Given these three goals, there is strong potential synergy with MOOCs. Libraries try to offer the best resources they can, and MOOCs are a fantastic source of content. And although MOOCs are free to the general public, there are two barriers that libraries can help with:

1. Some people lack the basic computer skills to take advantage of MOOCs
2. Some people want to have an in-person group experience while learning

Professor Michael Goldberg, of Case Western Reserve University, makes the case for combining local meetups with MOOCs and says “local meetups can produce a more meaningful educational experience and spark innovation for the online student”.  Jacobsen’s group is currently piloting two programs to help the public take part in and discuss MOOCs, and have selected the following courses, both on the Coursera platform:

• Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, taught by Charles Cockell of the University of Edinburgh
• Chemicals and Health, taught by Megan Latshaw and Beth Resnick, of Johns Hopkins University

You can think of these as a variation on a book discussion group. Each group is limited to 10 participants (the goal is to mimic a “kitchen-table” type conversation), and meets weekly to watch lecture videos projected on a screen. Then they spend time discussing what they’ve heard. The first session in the group was focused on explaining what MOOCs are (one participant in the Astrobiology class was “slightly annoyed” that the professor would not be showing up), and helping everyone sign up on the platform. “This is an idea that’s going to take off in the near future,” says Jacobsen, and he and his team will consider the pilot successful if most of the participants do the assignments and attend the follow up sessions.

Tom Erd explains the history of the spice trade routes.

These groups are valuable for helping people with common interest to meet and have discussions, but they are difficult to coordinate, as people need to be available at the same time (a major logistical problem MOOCs help to solve) and interested in the same topic. There are other activities that libraries offer that can be more scalable: letting people know about MOOCs as a resource, and helping people become comfortable participating in them. Perhaps there could even be value in “study hours” where people could come together in a computer lab to work on their respective (different) MOOCs–since we know that motivation and discipline is a key factor in persisting with MOOCs.

Another intriguing method has been tried: the University of Wisconsin-Madison partnered with 21 libraries in Wisconsin to offer guided discussions in conjunction with its MOOC on the micro-climate of the Great Lakes. The overall idea is that MOOCs offer ways to scale and globalize great content. Libraries offer ways to help individuals in communities to connect to resources that can benefit them. There is clearly room for a lot of synergy, and experiments like at Skokie Public Library, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and elsewhere, are starting to explore those possibilities.

Library Alexandria

A concluding thought: the most famous library in history was the great Library of Alexandria, established in Egypt in the time of Alexander the Great, and it contained an unprecedented collection of scrolls and documents collected from around the ancient world. The library was destroyed by fire, which resulted in an irreplaceable loss for civilization (remember, Aristotle’s works were forgotten by Europe for centuries).

Times have changed–if our libraries today burned down, we would not have a similar loss of information because so much of our information is online. But what we would lose are opportunities to engage within our communities, assistance services for those who might otherwise be left behind on the wrong side of the digital divide, and places to develop the critically important information search and evaluation skills needed by students, job seekers, and lifelong learners of all ages. All of which help make us better citizens in an increasingly digital age.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library…where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”  – Andrew Carnegie 

So support your public libraries. Go visit them in person and online, and look again at what they have to offer, they are designed for you. And by you, I mean everyone.

(images used with permission)