Public libraries in the UK face a number of challenges, including the implications of historic under-investment in capital assets and service modernisation, falling footfall and a general decline in book-borrowing. The rapid growth of the UK’s internet economy and, with that, the significant take-up of e-readers and e-books has undoubtedly played a part in luring more affluent communities away from libraries in recent years. The same could also be said for growing competition from alternative leisure pursuits and, in particular, those facilitated by new technologies. It is, nonetheless, public sector austerity to which most attribute the current crisis in the public library service, as local government is forced to rationalise its capital assets and quickly reduce revenue costs.
Efficiency measures have already resulted in local government having to reshape library provision by co-locating a range of services within library buildings, transferring responsibility for 15% of public libraries to communities, reducing the number of mobile libraries, and closing stand-alone library buildings in many places. Moreover, the LGA’s Funding Outlook for Councils from 2010/11 to 2019/20 indicates that the situation will worsen as local authority budgets for cultural services may be reduced by 90% by 2020. This is, however, to overlook a simple and, potentially, inconvenient truth: that the rationale for public libraries in and of themselves continues to lose traction amongst significant user demographics.
The situation is, in many respects, unsurprising when we consider the ways in which the copying or replication of knowledge, access to knowledge, search for knowledge, knowledge generation, exchange of knowledge, and trade applications of knowledge have been subject to digital disruption and increasing commodification over the past 25 years. This has been compounded by a lack of general awareness about the limitations and trappings of the technologies supplanting traditional library functions (in particular, online search engines) and also our gridlocked economy and growing concern about the impact of traditional intellectual property upon our socio-economic evolution. This has led many to believe that the information society represents a game-changer and, potentially, sounds a death knell for public libraries—just as video was said to have killed the radio star.
By contrast, Common Futures sees real and significant opportunities in recent developments for public libraries, and this is why we have opted to raise awareness and explore the potential for them to embrace the democratisation of publishing and the new technological means of reproduction, such as 3D printers. We believe that such a realisation could free libraries to become hubs for the generation of mutually beneficial knowledge assets with their users and communities, rather than them moving to incorporate the commercial intellectual property expertise and support that would stand in opposition to this. But how do we move from a situation where advocates of public libraries continue to regard them as portals through which to access ‘all the world’s knowledge’ (or at least, its traditional intellectual property), to one where libraries proactively support the expansion of a non-exploitative knowledge commons and, with that, serve as social and cultural levellers into the future?
In the course of our work, we have found that the scope for synergies between hackspaces, makerspaces and libraries is considerable and have identified three functioning models:
Affiliation or partnership working can enable public libraries to tap into established communities of interest and pool resources and hacker/maker expertise to encourage STEAM skills development.
Co-location has the potential to reduce overheads as well as to increase footfall through the establishment of inclusive community workshops.
Integration has the potential to evolve libraries in a more fundamental sense than either affiliation or co-location. That is, drawing upon the success of libraries that facilitate self-publishing on the part of the communities they serve, integrated library-hack-makerspaces are designed to invite contributions of knowledge and know-how from library users, eventually building them into what the entire library offers, so as to establish a social knowledge economy through multi-media community publishing.
Of course, hackers and makers are themselves engaged in a dazzling array of open source software, open source hardware and open data projects. And they’ve been relatively slow to recognise their broader knowledge production heritage, as well as their potential to evolve public libraries when understood in relation to the progressive canon from Prince Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops (1901):
“Continually, we learn that the same scientific discovery or technical invention, has been made within a few days possessive distance, in countries a thousand miles apart; as if there were a kind of atmosphere which favours the generation of a given idea at a given moment. And, such an atmosphere exists: steam, print and the common stock of knowledge have created it. Those who dream of monopolising technical genius are fifty years behind the times. The world—the wide, wide world—is now the true domain of knowledge.”
Nonetheless, we believe that the opportunity for transforming public libraries can and should flow from the co-design and co-production of a new model by libraries and contributing users for mutual benefit. And this is why we have sought to support communities to envision the library of the future from the ground-up, linking it to practical prototyping activities in different locations.