June 20, 2024

To Remain Relevant, Libraries Should Help Patrons Create


In the not-so-distant future, communities could view their local libraries as the place to go when they want to publish their own ebook, create and edit their latest song or video, or even  design and print out plastic tools, toys, and prototypes. A growing number of libraries already offer their patrons tools such as recording equipment and sound and video editing software. Now, some are beginning to house 3D printers. In fact, many libraries have begun viewing such services as a core part of their mission. (For more on this, see the editorial “Owning Up to the Future.”)

This was the key theme of “Made in a Library,” the latest OCLC/Library Journal innovation symposium, on May 15. Panelists included Sue Considine, executive director of the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL), NY, Lauren Britton, transliteracy development director for FFL, Joseph Sanchez, instructional designer at Auraria Library at the University of Colorado, Denver, Kathryn Harnish, senior product manager for OCLC, who discussed OCLC’s WorldShare platform, and LJ executive editor, digital products, Josh Hadro, on some of the creative innovations that he saw at libraries visited during The Great Library Road Show in March.

Moderator Jason Griffey, head of library information technology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, jump started the webinar by discussing the recent growth of the “Maker” subculture—groups of people with shared interests in pursuits ranging from robotics to woodworking, who often pool funds in order to purchase expensive equipment that they would not otherwise be able to afford as individuals.

“One of the things I’d like to see come out of this symposium today is changing people’s minds about how important this next generation of creation is going to be,” Griffey said.

A seminal moment for the subculture was the founding of Make Magazine in 2005, Griffey said, which has helped connect people and build momentum for the maker concept. The growth of the movement is also evident at regional Maker Faire conventions, the largest of which have drawn as many as 65,000 attendees, he noted.

“It’s a mainstream movement that’s becoming more popular every year,” Griffey said.

Libraries could serve as a point of collaboration for creativity within a community, and could help spark it by purchasing equipment like 3D printers, which, starting at about $1800, are out of reach for all but the most dedicated hobbyists, but are much less expensive for a library to provide.

Considine and Britton are doing just that at FFL. The library’s new Fabulous Laboratory (Fab Lab) is equipped with hands-on technological tools including a MakerBot Thing-o-Matic 3D printer made available to the library by a donation from Manlius, NY-based Express Computer Services.

Explaining how the Fab Lab fit within FFL’s broader mission to its community, Considine explained that “for us, the FFL is all about access. …The MakerSpace idea is a very natural evolution. We create access to new and interesting technologies and opportunities.”

Considine acknowledged that there are several barriers inherent to getting a project like the Fab Lab off the ground—notably, funding, as well as ingrained assumptions within a community and within the profession about what a library is supposed to be.

After assessing whether a project like this is a good fit for the community a library serves, it’s important to engage stakeholders, including staff and patrons, and explain the concept. Otherwise, since the concept might challenge preconceived notions regarding the functions that libraries serve, those stakeholders might question why their library is spending money on something like the FFL Fab Lab.

“One of the best ways, I think, to prepare for that question is to get out into your community before you bring this idea forward in a more comprehensive way,” Considine said.


Integrate self-published content into the collection

There are other important reasons to be thinking about user-created content as well. After Britton discussed the Fab Lab in more detail, Sanchez addressed first sale—the legal doctrine that allows libraries to circulate copyrighted works—which is under attack in the digital era.

“All content is migrating to digital formats…It’s disruptive for the producers, the vendors, the distributors, as well as libraries,” he said. “…But the most important thing for librarians to realize is that there is no first sale [doctrine] for digital content. It does not exist right now.”

In this environment, where publishers are structuring their businesses around licensing-based models for digital content, libraries should begin considering potential new ways to generate their own content.

“You think things are hard now. Wait until 80 to 90 percent of our content is digital and we’re licensing all of it,” he said. He later added that for digital music and video, libraries are now essentially competing for viewership and listenership with free online services like Hulu and Spotify.

“There was a question for Sue [Considine] and Lauren [Britton], why spend these limited resources on this? Well, because we can no longer afford to function in the 21st century, as content becomes increasingly digitized, as an information resource for our patrons…Our patrons expect a whole lot more than we can afford to give them.”

This is certainly a foreboding scenario. But, Sanchez noted that independent content producers often need help with distribution. Libraries could offer assistance transforming a Microsoft Word document into an EPUB file, and offer the resulting ebook for lending. As he later noted, self-published ebooks have begun regularly cracking the top ten in Amazon’s bestsellers list.

Libraries could be great partners in this growing self-publishing movement, he suggested during a Q&A.

“It would really help leverage our relationships with the authors of the future. …We really need to think about integrating that kind of collection development, based on our previous services, and how we already know how to weed out the bad stuff.”

He also has had success developing professional-quality audio and video production studios for libraries where he has worked, as well as offering digitization services for local artists. These services help build the library’s collection of local content, while offering many budding authors, musicians, cinematographers, and artists the assistance they need to get their work disseminated.

“I started thinking of libraries as these places where we can go out and network with our communities in a way that nobody else can,” Sanchez explained. “We can say ‘I can come alongside you and help you produce your idea.’”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.


  1. Sarah Chauncey says:

    It would be nice if libraries worked with companies who provide e-Publishing software such as ISSUU and 3DIssue so that patrons could publish their eBooks in library labs. (I have no stock in either company!)