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‘Biblio Tech’ author John Palfrey: Libraries still vital but need innovation

John Palfrey, founder of the Digital Library of America and author of ‘Biblio Tech.’
John Palfrey, founder of the Digital Library of America and author of ‘Biblio Tech.’

There’s no end to the challenges facing libraries in the digital age, but if you ask John Palfrey, he’ll tell you the biggest problem boils down to a lack of creativity.

“We don’t have a great collective imagination of what libraries can be in a digital era,” says the author of Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google. “If we did, we’d have to see that alignment between what communities need and how libraries support them. Too often we think of libraries as mere physical storehouses. ... It’s a moment of transition. That’s what’s exciting and frightening. We don’t know how our great institutions will thrive and fulfill their democratic purposes.”

Head of School at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, Palfrey appears Monday to discuss the future of libraries at Miami Dade College (he’ll be in conversation with Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen; Palfrey, who also led the effort to revamp the Harvard Law School Library, is also Knight’s board chair).

The topic and timing couldn’t be better for South Florida. Broward County Library recently won three top awards from the Florida Library Association, including being named Florida’s 2015 Library of the Year. Things aren’t quite so rosy for the Miami-Dade Public Library: Despite fending off deep budget cuts last year, the system has found itself ranked last in almost every category of a recent state assessment.

“Miami-Dade County Library System is caught in the perfect storm, this idea that somehow, because of the Internet, we can spend less and get more when the contrary is true,” says Lynn Summers, a board member of The Friends of the Miami-Dade Public Library. “Digital content is expensive. It’s fortuitous someone of [Palfrey’s] stature has taken on this assignment. It’s a complex topic, debunking this myth.”

The persuasive argument Palfrey makes in Biblio Tech (Basic, $26.99) is simple: The conventional wisdom that suggests libraries aren’t important anymore — and thus require less funding — isn’t true, no matter how many Google searches we can perform on our phones.

“Libraries are at risk because we have forgotten how essential they are,” he writes, adding that they are “core democratic institutions today just as they were in the nineteenth century. The knowledge that libraries offer and the help that librarians provide are the lifeblood of an informed and engaged republic.”

Sure, there is more material than ever available online, and libraries need to position themselves to be useful in a digital world while still keeping one foot in analog (despite the popularity of e-books, patrons still check out more printed materials by a wide margin, according to a study Palfrey cites). Librarians need to be innovative as well, Palfrey says, just as the institutions need to become more collaborative overall. The Digital Public Library of America — which is, Palfrey says, a third of the way toward reaching every part of the country — creates digital infrastructure to support libraries, including sharing computer code.

So why are libraries still vital? Among other things, in Palfrey’s view, they provide access to the great equalizer of high-speed broadband, which not all communities have and is a crucial need for new immigrants and low-income families, especially those with kids, who need online access for homework.

“A huge amount of the foot traffic is young people,” says Palfrey, who sends his history students to the library for projects. “They get assigned to go there. They’re consistently among the biggest library users.”

Libraries also archive historical material, a task made easier and more user-friendly in the digital world. Summers says the Miami-Dade library has all of the newspapers ever published in the city on ancient microfiche, information that would be easy and relatively inexpensive to store digitally — but the library doesn’t have the money to pay for the technology or the bodies.

“The biggest challenge at this moment is under-investment,” she says. “You’ve got to have the bodies. We had 600 librarians. Now we’re down to less than 400.”

The Broward County Libraries Division has made some inroads in innovation with partnerships with Nova Southeastern University and local businesses, as well as through its Creation Station, a hands-on lab for learners of all ages that will expand throughout the county.

“It really is a balancing act, to play into the history of libraries and how people viewed them and maintaining our regular book collection while also learning how to innovate and stay aware of technological advances,” says director Skye Patrick. “We’re a publicly funded agency, we don’t have endless amounts of dollars. ... But our original focus hasn’t changed. We provide free access to information as we always have. What’s changed is how the information is disseminated.”

Palfrey also believes libraries need to exist as physical spaces, although he adds that the warm nostalgia many patrons feel toward that quiet, well-lit place with books can be a detriment to creatively facing the future.

“We need good third places in the public environment beyond home and work, besides Starbucks, where people can gather,” he says. “Libraries are organized around ideas and knowledge. Space is a hugely important function. How we think about the space is changing in good ways. ... I don’t think there’s one ideal library space; it has to align with community interests. But libraries should have dynamic places where people can talk and have a coffee and spaces that are quiet and contemplative.

“Nostalgia is wonderful — and dangerous. it’s an important part of our memories, and there is much to love about the image of libraries of the past, but it’s too thin of a reed to cling to.”

If you go

Who: John Palfrey in conversation with Alberto Ibargüen, president, Knight Foundation

When: Book signing and registration at 5:30 p.m.; discussion at 6 p.m. Monday

Where: The Idea Center at Miami Dade College Wolfson campus, Building 8, 315 NE Second Ave., downtown Miami

Cost: Free, but must RSVP at https://rethinkinglibrariesinthedigitalage.eventbrite.com

Can’t make it? Watch livestream at knightfoundation.org/live

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