Phil Shapiro on Creative Libraries – A Partial Bibliography

In his post, Is It Time To Rebuild & Retool Public Libraries And Make “TechShops”? over at Make, Philip Torrone wrote about making libraries more useful by transforming them into “…factories that help make people who want to learn and make things.” This concept of shifting the role of public libraries from repositories to centers of creative action has been a theme in the writings of Phil Shapiro at PC World since his December 31, 2008 article, Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity? In it, he wrote “Public libraries are physical homes for the human imagination. The human imagination is represented physically in books, but also in the things we build and make.” And he has pursued this line of thinking in a number of articles since then. I’ve followed Phil Shapiro’s writing since that post, using it as a jump-off point for my own thinking about the possibilities of public libraries. The articles in the list below are not long or especially deep, but I feel that they provide the right kind of inspiration to move public libraries into the future. That’s why I’ve collected links to Phil Shapiro’s PC World articles here and added gentle annotations. Hopefully they’ll launch your thoughts about the future of public libraries as they’ve launched mine. Feel free to link me to interesting articles on similar topics in the comments.

*Community Content in Public Libraries (May, 2008) — Though not written for PC World, I included this one because I agree with its sentiment. Not a novel idea, but a good one to keep in mind: libraries should try as much as possible to bring forth, compile, and promote locally-produced content. This makes the public library a true community center, rather than a place that merely exists in the community.

*Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity? (Dec. 31, 2008) — Libraries should be centers of ingenuity. Some ways they can do this are for talented library staff to teach creative activities (“…[good at] soldering, or…Google SketchUp, or is handy at prototyping, or who likes to build solar charged lawn mowers, or has incredible talent at making a cat feeder from a VCR, or who is excellent at animation using free software.”), staying open during the hours when creative work happens (read: all the time), hire or bring in experts on various DIY topics, encourage interactions among different people, provide/rent out stuff for people to use. What I really like about this article, however, is its inherent assumption that these things are possible.

And the doctor then asks, "Are the people who designed our new library architects?" And the husband replies, "No, the people who designed our new library are us. The machine is us."

"How did we make it happen?" she says. "We made it happen because we wanted to make it happen," he says.

*Should the Gates Foundation Support Linux and Apple Computers in Public Libraries? (Sep. 2, 2009) — Libraries should let people have an opportunity to experience different operating system platforms so that they will not be stuck in only one mode of computing. Likewise, libraries should get staff or volunteers to run classes on Apple and Linux systems as well as Windows. As a side-note, compatibility should be a factor when deciding in which format digital files should be provided. Personally, I think it’s idiotic that Overdrive has many of its audiobooks in WMA format when the standard is clearly .mp3 and the open standard is .ogg.

*Public Libraries as Business Incubators (Jun. 2, 2010) — Based on the premise that talented and creative people live and work around libraries, Shapiro posits that they should bring their business ideas and meet like-minded folks whose talents are complementary. These people would use the variety of business resources that libraries provide and then kick back some profits to the library where it all began. This reminds me of this NY Times article about business incubators combined with WHERE[official website], a co-working space in the Los Feliz/Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.

*It’s Time for Public Libraries to Get Creative (Apr. 26, 2010) — A method for public libraries to generate revenue would be to use them, at least “…on Friday evenings…from 7 pm to midnight,” as spaces for (collaborative) creative work. Then library provides the space and the materials, community members create, and the library generates revenue by distributing and selling the work. But it’s not just community members who would do the creating but staff as well; hiring practices would be altered since now, “library staff would be hired based on their creative talents as well as their other competences.”

*Public Libraries Nourishing the Mind (Jul. 23, 2010) — It’s hard to be hungry and do intellectual work so libraries should have a cafeterias inside or adjacent to them. The cafeteria should include a public kitchen where culinary arts courses could be taught. All of this should be environmentally-sound, as in using “…solar cookers…to cook rice and other food…” and for making smoothies, use “…the bicycle-powered blender set up for that purpose.” The vegetables used in the cafeteria should come from a community garden near the library. Which is to say, when considering urban planning, civic spaces should be developed holistically.

*Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries (Jan. 4, 2011) — Starts by touting a need for a transition plan for all the public libraries in the United States big and small to move from analog to digital but gets sidetracked by the truly interesting issue of developing future library spaces. Side doors for meeting rooms, a “tinkerer’s room,” and other building possibilities to allow for some of the activities mentioned in other articles are mentioned. Through an anecdote of the Wright brothers flipping through magazines at the public library in Dayton, Ohio, Shapiro points out the greater purpose of public libraries.

*Specialty Public Libraries Offer More (Feb. 24, 2011) — Each branch of the public library has its own specialty which is expressed through special collections, programming, and subject specialists devoted to that topic. These specialties reflect the community and may shift from branch to branch over time. To give an idea of the specialties, here’s an excerpt: “What kind of specialties? One branch could focus on all aspects of design: graphic, architectural, print, fashion and so on. Another branch could focus on digital storytelling, including video, animation, and any other digital tools that can be used for storytelling. A third branch could focus on all aspects of performing arts including dance, juggling, improv, and the like; a fourth branch on music composition; a fifth branch on the process of invention, including the building of robots; a sixth on energy conservation, reuse of materials, and all things green; a seventh on health promotion and preservation; an eighth on playfulness, creativity, writing, and collaborative technologies. And a ninth branch could focus on computer programming and all advanced uses of technology.”

I find the idea of using libraries in unusual and wonderful ways exciting. I think librarians should be the connectors that bring entrepreneurs with complementary interests together as well as use talents outside of library work to add value to the community through workshops and classes. To do these things requires thinking differently about library policies as well as reassessing how we view slogans like the County of Los Angeles Public Library’s “Read. Listen. Create. Explore.” We really should be focusing more on creating and exploring. Why aren’t we?

Further Reading:
Nate Hill: Library Outposts, a new service model for urban public libraries

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