Re-envision our public libraries

07/19/2014 7:00 PM

07/18/2014 7:31 PM

Miami-Dade commissioners last week heard people from every corner of the county and threw our public libraries a lifeline. They kept the budget intact.

Terrific. Thank you. Congratulations to everybody.

Now what? This year the budget stayed at status-quo levels. But a few years ago it was much higher. How do we get back our award-winning libraries? Vision.

We have a moment of opportunity to re-frame what Miami’s libraries can be in the digital age. As we think about that, let’s remember Darwin’s axiom: The species that survive are not necessarily the smartest or fastest, but the ones who best adapt.

• In the age of the Internet, if you’re not digital, you don’t exist. Libraries have to be digital first. Let’s keep their core concept as repositories of knowledge, but focus on offering digital access and ways to use all that knowledge.
• Libraries should think of themselves as the center of any neighborhood’s civic discourse and an essential part of our education system. Libraries are places of inclusion that embrace the whole community. Let’s find ways for neighbors to help determine what their public libraries offer.
• Currently, we do not have a permanent leader of the library system. Let’s hire a visionary who can help us re-imagine what our libraries are and can be.

“Digital first” means that if there’s a choice between online activities and physical space (providing e-books vs. physical books), we should choose digital. Many people haven’t visited a library in a while. If that’s you, you might assume that today’s libraries are dead places where all that remains are stacks of dusty books and silence. Not by a long shot.

Libraries are alive and kicking. They have a future, precisely because of the Internet. They provide tapes, books and more to any citizen, regardless of wealth or sophistication. While books and tapes are sold online to those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, it’s only through the public library that they are given free to all. And librarians don’t just provide digital content, they help you access, sort and even understand it.

What if all our libraries were centers of learning and civic discourse? This is a noble goal. At the best of them, where you once found books and silence, you might now find community meetings or citizenship classes. The busiest rooms in the building are the ones with Internet access. It’s where you will find public computers bridging the digital divide, the poor and elderly using the Internet with everyone else.

Libraries are dead? Not at all — they complete the American promise of learning for all, and we need them more than ever in our rapidly changing community. We have unmatchable diversity and culture. Miami is entrepreneurial by nature, the gateway between north and south in our hemisphere. We have a growing tech community with young talent flocking here. Our universities are only getting better. Libraries can be a powerful element binding people to this place.

Libraries should play a role our city’s momentum. They do in other world-class cities. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel led efforts to align libraries with the city’s economic and education goals. In Miami, a recent survey of 5,200 residents in our county — commissioned by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and funded by the Knight Foundation — showed overwhelming support for libraries. A core group would go so far as to raise taxes to improve services. In this day and age, that’s amazing.

Libraries today can be noisy, happy places. At Miami’s award-winning YOUMedia space or in Chicago’s Maker Lab, people create things with everything from their hands to 3-D printers. They learn science and technology and, in this city, that means they might stay in town to join our new tech wave.

Libraries have long been portals to new worlds, unlocking vast storehouses of knowledge. Now, in our digital world, when knowing things in real-time can spark an explosion of innovation, libraries are even more important. They’re essential. We owe it to our future to take advantage of the possibilities.

Alberto Ibargüen is the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Join the Discussion

Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service