Why libraries are the best place for us to work.

At Caravan Studios, our participatory methodology fuels everything we do. It’s the how behind our work, and public engagement and ownership is a big part of that how. Recently, I shared a concept note that described the first part of this methodology. The note was geared toward people who might be interested in testing (and funding) the effort in their community of interest. In it, I said, as I often do, that libraries are the places where we hold events.

Why libraries? One person asked. Why not innovation hubs, or co-working spaces?

This is a great question. While there is nothing wrong with those spaces, for our work, libraries are EXACTLY the right place.

Communities own the library

We use a participatory methodology. In short, we facilitate a process that helps to galvanize community will and turn that into an actionable technology project.

In an email earlier today, I wrote that the community is both the client and architect of the products we develop.

Our language is aspirational: we believe the issue, the specific problems, the technology options, and the resulting products must be articulated, selected, and owned by the community. The body of our work is to bring our practice closer to those aspirations.

To create an environment of genuine community participation from the start, we believe you need to bring people together in a place that is owned by the community — not a place that’s owned by entrepreneurs or businesses or even foundations or nonprofits. Instead, we need a place where everyone in the community can access, where everyone has the same rights. We need a place that everyone owns.

That place is the library.

This is the point in this essay when my colleague, Sarah Washburn will caution me: But libraries are more than a place, she will say. They are community collaborators.

And she’s right, of course. I see place as a first and necessary element of that collaboration.

Libraries are a public space in which we can all — no matter our backgrounds or current circumstances — interact with one another and with vast array of resources provided at the library. (That sentence owes a debt to Zadie Smith’s wonderful essay, The North West London Blues ).

Where better to develop community solutions to problems that galvanize residents than this common space? The library.

Three examples

This talk about libraries being a common ground may sound aspirational, too. And it is. This is an aspiration toward which libraries and library systems around the world are working. Here are three examples:

1. The library in Ferguson, Missouri kept their doors open. After the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer and the subsequent decision of a grand jury to not bring charges against the officer, the town was plunged into unrest. This included protests, riots, arson, and vandalism. Public services, including schools, were suspended. During all of this time, the Ferguson Public Library remained open. Library leaders say this is ordinary. Libraries stay open and provide services through all kinds of disruption. But it’s amazing, really, that this place that is owned by everyone maintained its commitment and provided space to teach and learn, and a safe space for those who might not find one elsewhere.

2. Colombia’s public libraries are a territory of peace. The peace process in Colombia has brought a shaky political end to more than 50 years of civil war. The hard work of peace, though, has to happen on the ground, between people. Libraries are taking a key role in providing the space for people to remember their common heritage, culture, and humanity. Libraries have an opportunity to be a key place of inclusion, the building of a civic identity, and a place to archive the memories of what the country has experienced.

3. Two years ago, Chile started the process of rewriting a constitution that has been in place since Pinochet was dictator in the country. This has involved a substantial effort at individual and community engagement. Again, libraries have been key places to bring people together, to take on the hard issues of civic identity, and for people to talk about what is most important to them. In this instance, libraries are a place for dialogue, to find related knowledge and legal precedent, and to archive the discussions that lead to the final governing document.

So, why again are libraries the right place for us to work?

Because libraries belong to us. Because librarians make connections to information we never would have thought to ask for. Because libraries are a refuge for all community members. Because libraries are holders of culture and identity. Because libraries give us a place to explore the imagined territory of the future. Because libraries give us access to the performed territory of the past.

We work at libraries and with librarians because every single time we engage with others in that space we learn something. We hold events at libraries because librarians are trusted community messengers and connectors to a world of information and learning. We use libraries because they do not tell us the answer to our questions, they help us find the answer ourselves.

And that — a community of people coming together with access to expertise whether in the form of books or another person, hearing viewpoints different from their own whether in the form of books or another person — that is aligned to our aspirations with regard to technology development. And it pushes us to be better.

Marnie Webb is CEO of Caravan Studios. She has learned more about libraries and librarians in the last three years than she ever would have guessed.