Sunday, June 21, 2009

Libraries and the Public Sphere

I've been really taken lately by Senator Kate Lundy's idea of the Public Sphere. I think that open, transparent participatory library services are, apart from being a good idea, inevitable if libraries are to survive. And if transparency and participation are good for libraries then surely they are crucial for government. The 2nd Public Sphere event on Monday 22 June 2009, Government 2.0: Policy and Practice, explored how technological and media changes have made open, participatory government much more attainable.

But where do libraries (public libraries in particular) fit in to the scope of Government 2.0? I want to explore a couple of disparate ideas and see if I can bring them together to form a scenario that gives public libraries a meaningful role in Government 2.0 into the future.

Libraries and e-Government
Public Libraries have for long time been utilised by their governing councils as a place for community consultation, providing copies of documents open for public comment for instance, due in part to their general accessibility (longer opening hours, etc). In more recent times state and federal governments have started taking advantage of this accessibility along with the ease of publishing in the digital environment to promote libraries as an access point for government services. Indeed public libraries have been lobbying for more resources as they come to terms with facilitating this new role, and not just in Australia.

Libraries as a 'Third Place'
Are you familiar with the concept of the third place? Mark Bradley explains it quite nicely in this blog post but there is a lot being written in the bibliogosphere about the potential for libraries to become a third place in the lives of their community. The idea of a third place is that most people have a need for a place other than home or work/school to explore their interests. I think that given one of the missions of the public library is to facilitate lifelong learning, they fit nicely into the idea of a third place.

Problems with Government 2.0
While I am enthusiastic about the idea of Goverment 2.0 I can still see problems, mainly associated with the digital divide. Access to the digital environment, while continuing to expand, is not yet ubiquitous. High costs associated with decent broadband connection and the skills gap still pose a significant barrier to the digital environment for a section of our society. Indeed, the proliferation of Learning 2.0 programs in libraries in the last year or so demonstrates that there is a need for guidance as people begin to engage with newer social technologies. The beauty of these Learning 2.0 programs is that now many libraries have a base of staff who have used these tools and as a result libraries are in a good position to introduce their communities to social media and assist them through the learning process.

Now, to try and bring this all together.

Libraries have long been a destination for the provision of government information and services, and are increasingly involved in this area. It would seem logical, if not inevitable, that as governments open up their services and decision making processes to more public input that libraries should be involved. But how can they add value to the process?

They obviously have a role to play for people on the wrong side of the digital divide - they provide Internet access are generally available to assist people using their technology. However, I think there is a more important role to play. Libraries connect people with information and moving forward will be more involved in connecting people with people. This is where the third place idea comes in. Libraries can be a space where people can come together to engage in public debate. I would also suggest that for people to have meaningful iput in to public policy they must inform their views with access to good quality information. We do that too!

So, can libraries be a place where people can go to learn about public issues, connect with others to discuss those issues and then participate in the government decision-making process through new media, and get help to locate the information and use the tools while they are there? I like the sound of that.


James Dellow said...

There are plenty of Government 2.0 related events taking place in Sydney in the next few weeks. Perhaps of most interest might be the conversation cafe I'm hosting for the NSW KM Forum on the 30th June. It would be great to see some librarians at any of those events. If not, why not consider screening the Us Now movie at your library?

Kathryn J said...

Thanks for post Martin.

I've been interested in the Public Sphere discussions too and hope that public libraries figure in the mix. Public libraries must play some sort of advocacy role for those on the wrong side of the digital divide - Gov 2.0 won't mean anything at all to those who haven't adequate "e-skills" or digital resources. We need to continue to assist in the development of "e-skills" and we need to provide accessible and effective "e-infrastructure". The idea of the public library as a "third place" is a reality for some of our users - particularly at new branches like the Surry Hills Library, where the community seems ready to really engage with the library as a community place.

lib_aus said...

I think that as our population ages, in NSW we're looking at 1 in 4 people being over 65 in the years to come, libraries will in fact have the opportunity to fill the second place in the lives of retirees and older part time workers.

Without work to fill in large chunks of their time, many older people will need free and low cost options for community engagement, intellectual stimulation, social contact and assistance in navigating the online world. This is a role public libraries are ideally positioned to fill.