A Special Obligation to the Future

Mar 28, 2016 · 8 min read

I have written many, many words and spoken many, many more about the future of libraries. No matter how many times people point out the necessity of libraries in their communities, or how many studies about the ROI for local communities are done, there is an ongoing public relations war that has to do with believing that libraries are no longer needed.

Anyone that works in libraries has a laundry list of why that’s not true, and it usually boils down to the least powerful among us; the single parents, the homeless, the immigrant, the minorities that have been systematically disadvantaged through ongoing prejudice in America. These and so many more groups depend on libraries as their only information source in many ways, whether that information need is filled by being the place they go to read books, access the Internet, or go for assistance with interactions with scary governmental agencies like the IRS or Immigration services.

Libraries are the center of their communities. They are in many ways the exemplar of the democratic ideal; everyone has equal access to the knowledge contained within the library. Libraries are also, as I’ve said in many presentations, the memory of their local area. The public library becomes, over years, the memory storage unit for genealogical information, local newspapers, repositories for the papers for their most-well-known citizens, archives of local government, and a myriad of other bits of ephemera that add up to the most robust collection of the physical items of the now and near-past that future historians will likely be able to get their hands on.

But this hyperlocality is also a downside for libraries. There is no overarching story or connector between all libraries that’s easy to communicate, especially as you move from public libraries to school libraries to academic/research libraries, not even mentioning corporate, legal, or other highly-specialized libraries. If you zoom out away from the hyperlocal, everyone has good feelings about libraries because they recall their own interactions with them, but if you asked them what all libraries have in common the best they’d likely come up with is that they share books with people. And trying to explain what the through-line is when people ask librarians themselves about their jobs is truly bewildering in the 21st century. The children’s librarian that organizes programming for kids, does story hours, and understands developmental progress in literacy acquisition and can work with parents on pedagogical approaches for a variety of literacies is so far from something like a IT systems librarian that they literally may have not a single thing about their job in common. But they share a professional identity in the eyes of the public…we’re all librarians.

I have suggested in the past that the common thread that deliniates “librarian” from non-librarian isn’t the degree, but an understanding of the ethics and underlying professional responsibilities to the larger world of information and access. Librarians are the people that go to jail to protest unlawful access to reading records, they are the people that lobby for more rational copyright laws, they protect access to information that is challenged. These ethical positions and the understanding of the deeper reasons behind them are what separate librarian from non-librarian.

The American Library Association Code of Ethics document, specifically this passage from the 8th edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual, says:

“We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

I could not agree more wholeheartedly with this statement, and it underlies huge amounts of the work that I find valuable in librarianship.

So how do we extend these professional ethics into the library itself? Can we find a broader way of characterizing the library that gets away from the hyperlocal and gives us a story to tell that ties them together? I think we can, and I think we should. The key to this future of the library is, I’m becoming more and more convinced, as the primary provider of infrastructure for the coming decentralization of the Internet.

Of course, in its initial incarnation, the Internet was decentralized. Some portions of the infrastructure still are, but the last 15 years or so has illustrated a surprisingly powerful force for centralization…it just wasn’t the one we expected. When John Perry Barlow wrote in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberpace:

“I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

The expectation of those of us that read these words at the time was that the greatest threat to this nascent new world was governmental interference. As it turns out, commerce and capitalism are the forces that have led us to extreme consolidation of the major services of the Internet. Turns out that cyberpunk had it right all along, and it’s the corporate-state that has acted upon this “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace” and not the over-reaching hand of government control.

There is an enormous amount of effort being focused at the problem of centralization of power on the Internet. Not just of services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google and their command and control of user’s information, but also in the fundamental architecture of the DNS system and network routing. Decentralization is also a high priority in any situation where anonymity and security are concerns, as illustrated by Bittorrent, Tor, or Bitcoin. The commonality that appears in all distributed networks is the need for shared infrastructure to carry the service or traffic involved.

In most cases, the individuals who serve to gain something through the distributed network are the ones who also donate a portion of their own infrastructure to the network in question. Bitcoin miners act as bitcoin nodes for communication at the same time they give computing power to the network in order to try and profit through the rewards system built in to the cryptocurrency network. In other instances, individuals donate bandwidth or computing cycles because they support the ideology of the service, such as Tor.

Other decentralized systems under development, such as Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid project, are hoping to replace the data layer underlying the typical silos of personal information with distributed data that individuals can control. It’s doing so using a distributed file system and a linked-data structure that would look very familiar to metadata librarians. But it, too, will need hardware and bandwidth if it is to become a usable tool for pulling power back to the edges.

The future of innovation on the Internet will revolve around these distributed, decentralized systems…both the ones mentioned above and those yet to be designed. These systems will provide the information and services of the next big shift in computing. As we move to the so-called “internet of things” and more and more distributed computing, having nodes already in place through which these micro-networks can communicate will mean that whoever is prepared will be a key player in how that future is shaped.

Not only that, but one of the core reasons to move to these more distributed networks is that they are more robust against censorship, against control, and resistant to corporate whims. Services could fade away from disuse, but couldn’t be pulled out from under users as they can be currently (I’m looking at you, Google Reader). Services could have their own norms and controls built by users, rather than languishing under seemingly uncaring masters (talking about you, Twitter and your lack of abuse controls).

Libraries could be part of this future that I’ve outlined, and not just as consumers or users of the services, but as infrastructure that allows these services to grow and flourish. The amazing work that the Library Freedom Project undertook at Kilton Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire to install a Tor relay node (and eventually an exit node) was the result of a long effort to get libraries to recognize the value of their infrastructure in service of a larger idea…helping protect the communication of the entire world. Alison Macrina, the director of the Library Freedom Project, and Nima Fatemi, the technical lead, did amazing work shepherding the project and showing that a library can both serve their immediate community and serve the world at large.

What I’m hoping is that libraries can see the next step in this process. Libraries are legion, in every city, in every county, at every university and more. Tor was first, and it’s possible that Bitcoin/Blockchain systems are the next, but what I want is for libraries to embrace this distributed future, to volunteer their spare cycles and bandwidth to enable these next stages of the evolution of the Internet. Libraries are ideally designed for the needs of these services, speaking both to our ethical stance as well as playing to the strength of our infrastructure.

Supporting these technologies isn’t just an opportunity for libraries to be pioneers of this new distributed platform for communication. It is also a way for libraries to double-down on our ethics. Our special obligation to the future is to ensure that communication remains free, not only for our local communities, but also for the world at large. Participation in these services makes a measurable and meaningful difference to the people that rely on them everywhere in the world. If every library ran a Tor node, everyone that relied on Tor for communication would be safer and more secure…the journalist trying to get news out of repressive governments, the LGBTQ teen who is trying desperately to find information without fear of reprisal, the activist who is sharing information about illegal practices. All of these individuals would be fundamentally safer if every library was a participant in their safety.

The future will bring many more of these services, decentralized and controlled by the users, relying on each node to be an active participant to keep the whole healthy and functional.

Each of these services would be better if libraries were using their position and expertise to help create the future we want to see. The world at large would be a better place if we use our resources to create that future. The way we make a difference, the way we help to build the things we want in the world, is to participate in their creation. This new decentralized world that is being built gives us more opportunity to do this creation than we have had in more than a decade online. We missed the opportunity to influence current power centers by abdicating our expertise to corporations, and the world we live in is lesser for it.

Let’s not do that again. Let’s emphasize our ethics, become participants in this next stage of communication, and use our resources to make the world a better place. A futurenet full of decentralized services that have libraries as participants and players is a world that is way more interesting than the one we live in now.

If we can do this, if libraries can embrace these technologies now, before they are commonplace, they can become an integral part of the decentralized web. They could be a needed and necessary component in the future of communications, the future of financial services, the future of any decentralized service. The story of the future of libraries can simply be the story of the future, full stop. But this opportunity won’t be around forever, because as these services start coming online, there will be other answers if we aren’t there.

Let us, as a community, embrace these technologies. If every library in the country was running a Tor node and a Bitcoin node, both of those projects would be stronger and more robust than they are now, and when the next big service comes along we would be ready for it. There would be a model, and we could implement it quickly. Let’s start now so that when the future comes knocking, we’ve already set a place at our table and it’s as easy as opening the door and inviting it in.

A highly edited and condensed version of this essay was published on BoingBoing as How Libraries Can Save the Internet of Things from the Web’s Centralized Fate.


Written by


technologist, librarian, Affiliate Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade