NPR's Talk of the Nation had a discussion recently about the future of libraries. The question was: What is the library of the future like? Libraries have had their funding cut right and left, and the library in Salinas, California, where John Steinbeck lived, was nearly closed.
So needless to say, it's a good idea to think about how libraries can adapt and grow and become the kind of thing you'd never cut the budget for.
I love libraries. I grew up hanging around in libraries for several reasons. I was a standard quiet bookworm. My dad was a librarian for NOAH for 20 years or so, in Auke Bay for the fisheries laboratory where there was a huge tank of wonderfully gruesome things (can't call'em fish). And we always lived out of town so when my parents and I “went into town,” they would drop me at the library while they did errands. I think I can still smell the slightly musty, friendly smell of the Juneau public library, and the Flathead County public library in Kalispell has the most wonderful collection of old Life magazines. Read old magazines and you'll get a whole new look at history.
The Talk of the Nation program really got me thinking a lot about libraries. There are so many ways they can, and already are, such a great part of society. Many function as community centers, education centers, and of course places to go and use the computer when you don't have one at home. Up the ante and combine them with rec centers, for instance--kids enjoy story hour while parents work out, or vice versa. Explore the scanning technologies to put old books online that of course is being discussed with much controversy currently. Set up enormous web servers to provide online access to wonderful old books. (The aforementioned Life magazines come to mind.) Or enable paperless self-publishing for authors who have their novel and want others to read it; give them (open source) software to create a PDF of the book, and put it in the virtual library.
My particular thoughts on public libraries, though, are in regard to embracing open source. As mentioned, libraries aren't just books but a place to go and use the computer. (Using the computer at the Kalispell library is what got my dad hooked on email and made him decide to buy his first computer, at age 80.) Libraries already are associated with free computer use. So let's take that and go nuts with it.
I am of course not a library expert, I know pretty much squat about how they're run, but I think they're great and can continue to be a huge asset to the world. Some of these ideas are probably impractical, or perhaps already widely implemented, or C) other. And they're actually just as much about how open source could leverage the power of libraries as vice versa. These are just thoughts I'm throwing out that, in my enthusiastic ignorance, I think could possibly be beneficial to libraries, open source companies, and society in general.
The Goal: More People, More Demand for Services, and Maybe a Little Revenue
The more people use something, the less likely it is to get its budget cut. In theory, at least. The more benefit it provides to the most people, the more secure it is. So that's a goal, get the libraries as crowded every day as Walmart the day after Thanksgiving.
The other idea, which might be an issue based on how libraries are run, is to get a little revenue stream goin'. Plus a little corporate sponsorship. Library experts, if this is crazy talk just let me know.
A First Step: Libraries Web Sites Can Simply Provide Links to Open Source Software.
A really easy step to promote open source software, and drive people to the library web site, would be to just add a page to the library web site that points to all the open source download sites. No need to even offer support—just add a page discussing open source software, how great it is, and pointing to where anyone can download it.
Libraries Can Be the Brick-and-Mortar “Storefront” for Open Source Software.
One of the problems open source faces is that, much of the time, you can't just go to Amazon or CompUSA and pick up a nice shrinkwrapped box. Or even a single CD; forget the shrinkwrap. Libraries can be the brick-and-mortar “store” for open source software.
Why don't open source programs have stores? Well, there's the cost. But if you could find a building that would set up a nice display of your CDs...well, that would work pretty well.
Talk to libraries. Designate a section of the library where you can just walk in and get Ubuntu, RedHat, SuSE, OpenOffice.org, Gimp, and the zillion other programs available. Give them the shelving, if you want. Send the CDs already burned, or send them a couple computers and let users burn the CDs themselves.
Put a banner or sign outside the library to bring people in, of course. Send emails to the local Linux User Groups and have them spread the word.
Mark Shuttleworth has a great idea with his Freedom Toasters, kiosks where you bring your own blank burnable CD and get the open source software of your choice. Take that a step further to institutions that already exist, libraries.
Get Sponsorship From Open Source Companies to Provide Designated Technologists and Software
Coke sponsors public schools and they get exclusive rights to provide their product with lunches and in vending machines.
Who's sponsoring public libraries?
Maybe this is a slippery slope or double-edged sword that's dangerous but I'm ignorant enough to suggest it and think it has potential. ;>
It probably wouldn't be that difficult to get Red Hat, Novell, Sun, and other companies to sponsor library-based open source software availability. How much would it cost each company to even hire a dedicated open source librarian/technologist? According to the postings I see, about $30,000 a year in many places. $50,000 a year would be a very decent salary for someone who knows her way around a computer, in many locations. Another $10k maybe for some extra computers and a LOT of ready-made CDs with their software already burned.
Corporate sponsors could provide their own open source software directly to a large audience for not much money per library. There'd also be great PR for these companies. It doesn't get much better than "Official Supporter of America's Public Libraries and Education for Every Person".
And of course, it's gotta be tax deductible.
I realize that Coke having free rein with its products in grade schools is a double-edge sword, but nobody's going to get diabetes or rotten teeth from open source.
Library-Centered Geek Squad for Help With Installation, Troubleshooting, Etc.
One of the issues with Linux is the perception that if you run into problems, you're on your own. Which is funny since there are zillions of Linux enthusiasts out there, happy to help. But what if, through corporate sponsorship or other means such as organizing the LUGs, everyone could just go to the library to get help with Linux or other open source products? The sponsors could even say that they would provide help simply on a first come first served basis to anyone with their particular software. Just load up the computer and bring it in.
This again relates to potential issues with charging people, but it might be workable to charge a modest rate for this help, too--maybe some basic help is free and extra-technical help you get charged for.
Charge for Shrinkwrapped Software?
Libraries might give away basic CDs of open source software, and charge $30 or whatever the sponsor suggests plus your library's margin, for a shrinkwrapped box with documentation.
Create an Internet Cafe On Site
People go to Internet cafes and pay for overpriced coffee to use computers and the Internet. It's a huge business. Slumping in a purple velvet overstuffed chair is a nice way to spend the day, whether you're doing email, shopping online, playing poker, etc. People will come to the library if they can get that a Starbucks or cool local coffee shop fee. Then of course, set up the computers, loaded with open source software, for public use as well.
If you want to provide coffee (with due warnings about NOT spilling on keyboards ;> ) and pastries that might be a decent revenue stream. Again, I'm not at all familiar with the rules if any for what libraries can charge for on premises but the premise is that you don't have to pay for anything, just extra stuff if you want to.
Teach Open Source Classes in Libraries
This idea of teaching classes in libraries is nothing new, of course, But it would be a big benefit to open source.
A huge barrier to adoption of open source is that people don't know about it. Or if they do know about it, they think it's difficult. Or else it's just unfamiliarity.
When anyone can go to the library and learn to use the software, and take away a free CD of the software, the barrier is immediately lower.
Getting the Computers for General Use and for Classes
How do you get all the computers you need for all these classes?
The library corporate sponsors can provide some of the computers to have enough for all students, and the corporate-paid technology librarian, and other librarians, can teach the classes.
You don't generally need as fast a computer to run Linux, so head to your local computer rebuilding area, or to your local Linux Users' Group, and collect old desktops and laptops. Stick Linux on'em (consult your Linux User Group for the fastest, lightest-weight install), and you've got lots of cheap computers.
Team up with schools and teach in the evenings, perhaps? Schools are closed in the evenings, and most of them have computers.
See also this article on cheap new computers.
Cross the Digital Divide
With sponsorship from open source companies, free software, and someone to do the teaching, we can try to approach the ideal of equal computer education, which can lead to equal education, period. If anyone in this country can get to a library, get to a computer, and learn to use the software, all for free: that's the gateway to an enormous set of opportunities.
Say...What About Schools and Open Source?????
Well, of course, open source organizations should actively try to sponsor schools, as well. ;> But I'm talkin' about libraries in this post.
That's What I Think
As I mentioned, I am NOT a librarian, and my dad was a librarian for NOAH, not public libraries. But I love libraries, I love open source, I want to see both succeed, and I think each has benefits for the other.
If you want to read about people who actually know libraries ;> here are some blogs.
And of course