ApacheCamp: brainstorming the future of libraries

I recently attended ApacheCamp. I had been meaning to have a conversation with a friend about the future of libraries and threw it up on the scheduling board. I was delighted that about 20 other people were interested in participating in that conversation too. It was awesome to pick the brains of some really clever people about what libraries could be doing with technology.


Zak Greant elegantly summed up the conversation by stating that technology, namely the shift from physical books to ebooks and other licensed electronic content, is eroding many of the core values of libraries, like access and free speech. Someone complained that they can’t use the ebook and audiobook content that their public library provides because it only works with proprietary software. I also learned that Amazon is now renting ebooks.

Librarians need to collectively educate and lobby publishers, content creators, content providers and vendors to create content that supports access and intellectual freedom. The boycott of HarperCollins is one of the more aggressive things that libraries have done. Librarians need to better understand copyright and licensing issues and how they affect our business.

Other ideas

The mention of Amazon brought up the suggestion that it would be great if libraries could embed themselves in Amazon and show Amazon customers that the items that they are about to buy are available at a library close to them. This reminded me of the Greasemonkey script that Steven Tannock wrote for VPL’s holdings. Luke Closs said that while that was useful he was doubtful that many people used it. He’s right, it’s only been downloaded about 300 times.   Luke thinks this is a good proof-of-concept, but that libraries could do a couple of things to make this work better:

So if your org came to the conclusion that the amazon hack is a useful thing, your next step should be how can we get as many people using it as possible. This would require 2 things. 1) Technically – you’d want to re-package it to be as easy as possible to use. This probably means re-creating it as a Firefox/Chrome browser plugin so that it can be installed with one click.  2) Putting some marketing muscle behind it – maybe posters in the libraries, add it to email footers on outbound notifications to your users…

I’m sure there’s something that could be done with the WorldCat API.

Zak suggested that the library could be a place where people could bring old files that they can’t access because they don’t have the software like Lotus 1-2-3, or the hardware to access stuff on old floppy discs. In Vancouver I reckon this could be a great partnership between VPL and Free Geek, though I imagine the biggest hurdle would be library staff’s anxiety around not being experts in this area.

In discussing content models and how expensive digitization was, someone suggested using Kickstarter or setting up something similar for digitization projects. In addition to fundraising for digitization it would also build a community support around digitization projects and digital collections.

Ross Gardler flipped things and suggested a kind of reverse digitization. Ross stated that librarians are good at curating information and can find you stuff you don’t know exists (it makes my heart sing to hear non-librarians say this). He thought it would be useful if he could get a printed book with the most relevant information curated from various print and electronic sources. This reminded me of Peter Rukivina’s paper ebooks.

I feel really lucky that so many smart folks at ApacheCamp love libraries and were willing to brainstorm on how to make libraries better. I’m super excited and energized by this type of cross pollination.

2 thoughts on “ApacheCamp: brainstorming the future of libraries”

  1. LibX (at http://libx.org) is a browser plugin that does what that Greasemonkey script was doing, except for a broader set of sites and with support for proxied connections, etc.

    We maintained a version of it for Laurentian University for some time but ultimately found that it wasn’t worth the effort for us; even when installed by default on our university workstations. However, it might be worth a look for others interested in this idea.

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