Public Libraries | Multiple Solutions.

Recently, I was asked to answer the question “If I could say one thing about public libraries, it would be this.” That is one hell of a tough question. I cheated a bit in my answer. Check it out.

Sharing systems.

Public libraries are sharing systems that can be implemented in countless different ways. They are the result of an agreement that a community makes to efficiently pool and share a set of resources. For centuries, we’ve thought of libraries as sharing systems for books, because the printed word has been the primary format for storage or transfer of knowledge. The printed word is no longer the dominant format for knowledge exchange, so our sharing systems are beginning to take on new identities, programmatically, architecturally, while their roles are also shifting in the information ecosystems of the municipalities and stakeholders they serve.

Having established books and media as only one type of resource that a library might share, I’m interested in how these public sharing systems will mature. What factors will make one more successful than another? In library circles, it is now old news that we are diversifying public computing services to include more than just public access to internet-connected desktop units. It is already a common mantra to hear librarians speak of “production as well as consumption of knowledge and culture”. The integration of makerspaces and access to tools, both high-tech and low-tech, has been popularized by early-adopter libraries, and these services are now gaining mass appeal. Recently, the Knight Foundation funded mifi checkouts at the New York Public Library and Chicago Public Library. Though this may not be meant as a long-term, sustainable service, it is a clever piece of internet access activism that addresses the digital divide in these cities, and I like seeing libraries working in that space. The circulating mifi devices show that diversity of resources being made available in our localized sharing systems continues to expand.

For the sake of planning, strategy, and communication, I believe we need to classify the types of resources communities share in our changing public libraries. I separate all library resources into four categories. Additionally, I would suggest that no one of these categories should be considered alone as substance for a robust, valid service design. Successful libraries mix and match from each of these categories to build services.

Public libraries provide shared access to information and media. This includes data itself as well as descriptive metadata; then there is traditional media of all formats: books, ebooks, audio, video. For an example of access to data, look at Chattanooga Public Library’s open data portal. We partnered with the city to provide open government and locally relevant data sets as library collections. Media collections don’t require as much introduction; they are what most people think of the instant you say the word “library”.

Public libraries provide access to tools. This includes digital tools and machines, hardware and software, as well as mechanical or even simple tools. Great examples of access to tools would be the tool lending library in Berkeley CA, the guitar lending library in East Palo Alto CA, or lendable robots at Chicago Public Library. This list can go on and on.

Public libraries give people access to other people. A library cannot wrangle and serve all of a community’s knowledge, instead that knowledge is distributed throughout the community. Some of it may be recorded in print, on the web, or in other formats, but a great deal resides in individual minds. This can be implemented in many ways. The most literal implementation would be the human library, but the same ideas are at work any time that a library facility acts as a civic laboratory for open discourse and exchange.

Public libraries provide infrastructure for knowledge exchange. This refers to architecture or connectivity. Knowledge exchange needs to happen somewhere. It can take place in the physical world in a building, or in the digital world on a network. At the Chattanooga Public Library, we have taken this concept as far as we possibly can: a public GigLab on the library’s 4th Floor will provide access to tools and connectivity so that library users can develop applications for our gigabit passive optical fiber network. Likewise, the space functions as an open community platform, hosting classes and meetings for anyone who wishes to teach or attend.

The library as ______.

In the past 10 years at least three influential academics have reframed the library’s purpose in arguments structured as “The Library as ____.” Those are, in no particular order, Shannon Mattern’s article Library as Infrastructure, David Weinberger’s essays about the Library as Platform, and David Lankes’s ideas of the Library as Conversation. The very fact that three people of this intellectual caliber have written popular pieces reframing the purpose of libraries is fascinating in and of itself, and it speaks volumes about the disruption library organizations are seeing. I’m less interested in the differences between the three perspectives, and more intrigued by their similarities.


In her important Design Observer essay, media studies professor Shannon Mattern describes the public library as “Flexible Infrastructure”. Mattern wants us to think of libraries as “a network of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures— in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological and ethical infrastructures”. I agree with her assessment, but I also think of libraries as flexible infrastructure in a more literal way. Public libraries are an essential component of civic and urban infrastructure; they contribute to a healthy, thriving, vibrant city culture just as safe streets, public transportation, or parks and sidewalks do. I’ve seen libraries drive downtown redevelopment projects, aid public schools, or lead economic development initiatives. At their best, libraries become the finest collaborators in their communities; they flex and act as a bridge between individuals, between organizations, and between individuals and organizations.

I have experienced first-hand both the advantages and the burdens of operating an institution that can provide such a breadth of services while also remaining true to its core mission. When this flexibility is used to its advantage, the library is afforded organizational agility. Should community or stakeholder needs shift, if political administrations and interests change, or as the economy booms and busts, the institution can pivot if it is well administered and prepared for iterative change. Acting as flexible infrastructure becomes a burden when a library has lost its capacity to design mission-driven services with intention, if the organization is not efficiently run and poised for rapid change, or when instead it is forced to design solutions to social problems that are not being addressed by other organizations.


David Weinberger’s essay, the Library as Platform, was published as the Digital Public Library of America planning process neared its end, and as the long awaited, much anticipated DPLA platform, portal, and community launched. This was a really influential article for me and my approach to library service design. Weinberger appropriates the language and conceptual framework driving open software development projects and applies it to library catalogs, collections, a potential product development community, and possible end user interactions. The article was well-timed; public and academic library communities had been primed by the DPLA planning, and the idea of a massive, digital library platform with open APIs had been well socialized throughout the profession. What continues to resonate with me about his essay has nothing to do with software development, instead it is the way the same patterns he describes can be applied to everything else the library does. The DPLA has been successful as an open library platform: they report that the API actually sees more traffic than the website does. But my bricks and mortar local public library has also made itself available to library users this way.

Mattern presents a soft critique of Weinberger’s ideas, saying they sound like “Silicon Valley entrepreneurial epistemology, which prioritizes “monetizable” “knowledge solutions”, but I don’t see Weinberger’s work as contradictory to her thesis. The Chattanooga Public Library’s 4th Floor operates as an open community knowledge platform. Every day, in the 4th Floor makerspace / civic laboratory at Chattanooga Public Library, individuals and organizations take advantage of the tools, media, people, space, and connectivity we provide. The 4th Floor is a platform for expression, a place where Chattanoogans produce culture and share their expertise with one another through structured and unstructured learning. Meetup groups like the Code XX Ladies, Maptime Cha, and Open Chattanooga regularly set up camp, a design professor threw a Zinefest, the startup incubator CoLab throws business pitch competitions. Chattanooga Public Library is hardly alone in operating this way, I like to point to the Madison Bubbler as a similar, yet different type of community platform, and the Library as Incubator blog does a terrific job cataloging and promoting similar efforts.


Finally, I look to David Lankes’s descriptions of the ‘participatory library’ and the ‘library as conversation’ as source material for the emergence and now popular appeal of internet-age public library services. In 2007, Lankes wrote that “new librarianship recasts library and library practice using the fundamental concept that knowledge is created through conversation. Libraries are in the knowledge business; therefore libraries are in the conversation business.” It is important to remember his statement into the context in which it was introduced. June 29, 2007 was the day that first iPhone was introduced. Friendster died in 2003, Facebook was founded in 2004. The internet had already informed new social structures, even while it was still tethered to the desktop, but the mobile web was suddenly an emerging phenomenon. The multitude of ways that people interact with one another, the ways they converse, was about to see a revolution as Lankes made this insight. To think those social changes would be relegated to online environments would be a mistake, and in fact I frequently see better implementations of the library as conversation in physical spaces than online.

I remember doing a program called Past, Present and Future of Food at the Bushwick Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in 2009 (the internet never forgets). This was a simple example of the library as conversation. Our little branch library didn’t have a huge archive of materials about the local history in Bushwick, nor did we have a ton of books about food deserts, sustainability, and urban farming. What we did have was a diverse population, all of whom were interested in food and food production. A new pizza restaurant called Roberta’s had recently opened in the neighborhood, and right behind the library were the Bushwick Houses, a housing project dating back to 1960 that had a strong community garden. At the library, we invited the whole neighborhood in for a conversation. People met, friends were made, and knowledge was exchanged: all with the library as the facilitator.

Programs like the Past, Present, and Future of Food happen a few times a week now at our library in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’m proud to say I believe our downtown public library is one of the most diverse places to find an interesting conversation in our entire city. Brooklyn or Chattanooga may make good examples, but ultimately any great library is an accurate reflection of its community, and no two communities are the same. The disruptive read-write nature of the open internet has necessitated Lankes’s ‘new librarianship’ ideas, ensured the viability of Weinberger’s library platform, and set the urban conditions for Mattern’s flexible infrastructure argument. None of these perspectives contradict one another, instead they complement and depend on one another. Likewise, the four categories of resources — media, tools, people, and infrastructure — work as a matrix for library service designers to draw from as they respond to community needs.

So the one thing I can say about libraries is that there is no one thing to say about libraries: as long as communities are diverse, libraries will reflect that diversity.