The New And Improved Public Library

Libraries are magical places! Growing up, the local library was my favorite place to go. I loved the silence, the endless possibilities of good books, and the feeling of pure escape. But lately, libraries have transformed into so much more than just a book repository.

Brian Burke, Managing Director at the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, recently published a report called “Enabling Open Government For All: A Roadmap For Public Libraries.” The report analyzes the future of the 21st century public library, and its evolving place in government services. Christopher Dorobek, host of the podcast DorobekINSIDER, recently interviewed Burke on the report’s results.

How are libraries and open government related? According to Burke, public libraries have been in the open government game for a while.

Libraries have begun using technology more and more, by digitizing their catalogues, investing in ebooks, and providing computers and Internet for library patrons. They’re making a great deal of information available online for citizens to access more easily.

Additionally, public libraries often provide training programs for citizens to learn technology skills. “The library can provide a key role in really helping its citizens get up to speed, so that they can benefit from all this wonderful information and technology that’s out there,” explained Burke.

Libraries occupy a special place in America – they serve as a sort of local knowledge hub and a physical touch point between citizens and government. Historically, government forms were all paper-based, people went to libraries to pick them up and fill them out.

Now, many important government forms are available online, but people still turn to libraries for support. “More and more libraries we’re finding patrons coming in, not only wanting to access computers to use online services, but going to libraries and saying, ‘I actually don’t know how to apply for this program, can you help me out?’” Burke said. Libraries are now responsible for not only providing the resources, but helping those resources be properly utilized.

The role of the public library is evolving. They are becoming more active as agents in public life. “It’s not the norm, but there are libraries that have been called on my their communities to take a new role. To step outside the library and go convene forums or to meet with community groups on behalf of government,” Burke explained. “They’re seen as kind of that neutral trusted actor within this local government ecosystem.”

Despite all of these facts about what libraries are already doing, they don’t get much credit for enabling open government. We don’t often associate libraries with innovation and forward thinking, but the CTG’s report suggests that we probably should.

“In our research, we came across example after example of libraries already supporting open government, but they don’t call it that, and they don’t communicate that to open government advocates,” Burke said. “Open government advocates didn’t realize that’s what it was.”

So, bookworms beware! The public library as you know it is a thing of the past. But, you’ll probably like the upgrade.

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David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Camilla. You do a great job of explaining the evolution of public libraries in the Digital Age. If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you visit the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill — which is more like the public libraries of yesteryear, even though I’m sure it has a digital strategy.

Camilla Nawaz

Thanks David! And as a book-lover, visiting the LOC is high on my DC to-do list. I have heard amazing things. Given how huge it is, digitizing it will certainly be a challenging process.