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The future of libraries and the value of libraries is content — including free content

Today I was re-reading an article from a few years ago and was struck by how prescient it was in providing a formula for the success of libraries. Here are some of its main points:

  • Find a niche with growth potential (serve a community).
  • Organize information to make it useful
  • The internet is a distribution channel — not a product (add value!)
  • Turn words into math (sophisticated mathematical formulas can find patterns in content and make it more discoverable)
  • Separate the signal from the noise (Type the word “jaguar” into Google’s search engine and you’ll get 64 million results. Fix this!)
  • Computers can’t do everything (humans indexers and editors make the difference that algorithms cannot)
  • Print’s not dead, it just needs online help

There you go!

Oh, I left out two things: One of the main rules was “Treat content like patented material” and the article was not about libraries but about Westlaw which has a successful “business model” of doing what libraries don’t do anymore because “it is all on the web” and “someone else is doing that” etc.: selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information and providing discovery of, access to, and service for that information. And they built their business model on using Free information. Most libraries do not have to make money which means they could do this for less cost and deliver the results to more people for free. But libraries would have to make the case that this is a better, more equitable, more democratic model than relying on the private sector. And they’d have to have leaders with the vision to build a 21st century library. Westlaw and others did it in the 20th Century. Google could never have built Google books without all the work libraries provided by building collections. What libraries have this vision today for future generations?

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