The evolution of the public library

2011-06-25 00:00

GOOGLE announced earlier this week that it will be digitising a further 250 000 books from the British Library. This is in line with Google’s mission statement to “make all of the know-ledge contained within the world’s books searchable online” as part of its Google Books service. Google has already scanned around 13 million books worldwide through partnerships with over 40 libraries. This recent endeavour is predicted to take the company three years to complete.

As part of this new agreement, the books, pamphlets and periodicals that will be scanned were published between 1700 and 1870 and are out of copywrite. The digitised material will all be freely available online through Google Books as well as the British Library­’s 19th Century Books app compatible with tablet PCs such as the iPad. Readers will be able to view, copy, and share all the digitised texts for non-commercial use.

In an article published on the Guardian­ website, president of the Royal Historical Society, Professor Colin­ Jones, says: “There is no doubt that the digitisation of this unique material­ will greatly benefit the research process. Academics are increasingly using new technologies at their disposal to search for innovative ways of investigating historical material to enable us to probe new questions and find alternative patterns of investigation. Digitisation gives us the freedom to not only do this quickly and remotely, but also enhances the quality and depth of the original.”

There will always be arguments, perhaps moments of reminiscence, over the value of reading a hardcopy book made of paper versus reading an e-book using a digital device. But what will this move towards digitising published books mean for the public library­? Can anyone honestly say that they have made regular visits to their local library since their university, or even school days?

The existence of public libraries today has largely depended on community support and attendance. According to Wikipedia, the formula to get funding was simple: demonstrate the need for a public library, provide the building site, annually provide 10% of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation, and provide free service to all. It can be argued that the need for public libraries is fast dwindling due to the ever-growing presence of the world wide web. So what might replace the public library?


What has emerged, at least in the United States and Europe, are smaller scale centres for learning, funded and operated by groups of people with collective interests. Hackerspaces, Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs) and TechShops have been sprouting up in just about every state in the U.S. according to a blog called

“There are hundreds of hackerspaces that have appeared, almost overnight, around the world. From my re-collection over the past decade, the ones in Europe were really appealing. Many makers were travelling around the world, and eventually word spread. Now, just about every state in the U.S. has one, and most large cities have hackerspaces.” — http://blog.make

The concept of a hackerspace sounds really appealing and seems like a productive and worthwhile civic building for any city to fund. Hackerspaces are membership-based operations that generally consist of tools, workshops, computer networks and people with common interests. Members share rent for the building(s) utilised as well as resources and information that they have accumulated.

“A hackerspace or hackspace … is a location where people with common interests, usually in computers, technology, science or digital or electronic art can meet, socialise and/or collaborate. A hackerspace can be viewed as an open community incorporating … machine­ shops, workshops and/or studios­ where hackers can come together to share resources and knowledge. Many hackerspaces participate in the use and development of free software and alternative media and can be found in infoshops or social centres.”


The Fab Labs that have emerged are similar to hackerspaces. They can be thought of as small-scale workshops that create products that are generally limited to mass production.

TechShops, on the other hand, are commercial ventures that provide all the tools and equipment needed to make almost anything.

The author of Phillip Torrone, explains that TechShops are designed for everyone, regardless of their skill level. TechShops are “perfect for inventors, makers, hackers, tinkerers, artists, roboteers­, families, entrepreneurs, youth groups, arts and crafts enthusiasts, and anyone else who wants to be able to make things that they dream up, but don’t have the tools, space or skills.”

So in considering the role that public libraries can or should have in the future­, it may be useful for members on the city council to consider the value that hackerspaces, TechShops and Fab Labs have to offer in educating future and current generations. Perhaps public­ ­libraries could provide this space to fill the void as more and more books go digital.

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