It's always intriguing to watch the ebb and flow of technology across the nonprofit world. In some areas, foundations view technology as something close to a panacea. Take the museum world. Last year, Bloomberg Philanthropies ponied up $17 million to make the museum-going experience more digitally interactive.
Then there are public libraries. These ancient, rickety institutions—or so the logic goes—are trapped in the 1950s and need an injection of transformative and disruptive technology to make them relevant. "The Kids" demand it! Yet, a closer analysis reveals this is a somewhat deceptive narrative.
Take our recent look at the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge on Libraries. When you think of Knight, you might think of disruption. It supports initiatives aimed at "hacker-journalists" and collaborative technologies. Yet its vision of public libraries is firmly rooted in the brick-and-mortal world. As we've noted, Knight understands the potential of untapped and underutilized assets like physical books, archives, maps, etc. And five of the eight projects in the foundation's Prototype Fund will be used to recalibrate the allocation of existing assets to boost accessibility. What's more, Knight wants to leverage the value of capacity. Public libraries are, in many instances, huge, cavernous spaces. Knight wants to make sure these spaces are being properly utilized.
These two themes—frequently underutilized physical assets and physical spaces—are two areas where libraries and art museums differ. Which brings us to a third difference. Public libraries, by their very nature, are public spaces conducive to gatherings, interactions, and community engagement. Technology may be important, but it's not necessary to the existence of a public space and its practical uses.
Needless to say, this lesson isn't lost on some of the country's most innovative public libraries. Here are just a few examples of cool programs where technology is an afterthought:
- Washington State’s Lopez Island Library lets people borrow musical instruments.
- The Library Farm in Cicero, New York lets patrons interested in organic gardening borrow plots of land.
- San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum rolled out an exhibition that is both an art installation and lending library.
- The Sacramento Public Library is launching a program called "Library of Things" to expand its collection beyond just books, films, and music to provide other resources community members might need.
- The Central Library of Philadelphia's 54-branch system has opened a "demonstration kitchen" to house its innovative Culinary Literacy Center, which will incorporate literacy, math, science and problem-solving into cooking and nutrition classes.
All of these programs, in their own ways, have proven successful since inception. What's more, when taken in total, these projects corroborate the futuristic visions of foundations like Knight and MacArthur. In short, libraries will continue to evolve into community gathering spaces that offer services, materials, and collections far beyond books. (Not that there's anything at all wrong with books.)