Libraries as software - dematerialising, platforms and returning to first principles

4 April 2012

Ever since I read Marcus Westbury’s article about Renew Newcastle, Cities as software, last year I’ve been thinking about how the concepts he writes about can be applied to libraries.  For those who are less text-centric, Westbury also gave a talk at Tedx Newie.

Cities as software

The principle is fairly straighforward, but like many ‘disruptive’ ideas it is only obvious after someone has articulated it.  Westbury’s insight was to realise that the problems of stagnating, post-industrial Newcastle were not caused by the decaying buildings or ugly streetscapes - the ‘hardware’ of the city.  And since there was no hardware problem, building new office blocks or spending money on street beautification wasn’t going to work.  The problem with Newcastle was a ‘software’ problem - so many shops were boarded up, so many businesses struggling along, that it had become impossible for any new businesses to succeed.  What Newcastle needed was for someone to hack the planning, regulatory and real estate systems to make the place vibrant again, thus attracting new business and a new sense of civic pride.

Thinking about cities as a combination of ‘hardware’ (buildings, streets, parks) and ‘software’ (laws, rules, traditions, business models, cultural norms) is a useful conceptual model because it allows us to separate out things that are often conflated.  A heritage building, for example, is hardware, because it has physical form.  But it is also software, because it has cultural value and often a legal identity as having heritage value.  The software determines what can be done with the hardware.

Libraries as software

The software/hardware framework is a good way to think about what libraries are really about as we move further into a world of post-paper publishing.  What libraries have all too often focussed on in the past is hardware - buildings, books, journals and rooms.  Librarians get caught up in hardware questions continually - hardback or paperback, how many PCs, should we buy Blueray discs, lend Kindles, subscribe to downloadable talking books, throw out our cassette tapes....?  In this context, we can consider things like journal databases, ebooks and other downloadables as hardware as well - we treat these things as artifacts, things to be collected and stored.

Hardware is what decision-makers and funders think about - books, buildings and, if we’re lucky, computers. Hardware is easy to understand, easy to provide once-off grants for and usually offers a photo opportunity.  The problem with hardware, however, is that it’s useless without software. Marcus Westbury recognised this in Newcastle and if librarians are to fulfill their real purpose (and keep their jobs) they need to recognise it too.

The real value of libraries is not the hardware.  It has never been the hardware.  Your members don’t come to the library to find books, or magazines, journals, films or musical recordings.  They come to be informed, inspired, horrified, enchanted or amused.  They come to hide from reality or understand its true nature.  They come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude. They come for the software.


Dematerialising could be the best thing that ever happened to libraries.  With the Open Access movement gathering steam, Open Source so entrenched that Red Hat made $1Billion annual revenue in the last year, and more options than ever before available to authors wanting to be published, we are at the beginning of a completely new era in the way information and art is disseminated.  If your business model relies on the idea that you provide access to otherwise restricted informational and cultural artifacts your business isn’t going to be viable for very much longer.  This applies whether you’re a publisher, bookseller, newspaper proprietor, television executive or librarian.

How we change the software - the services we provide, the way we make information findable, how we help people to make connections between things - will determine the future of libraries and the communities they serve.  This has a connection with the ideas I wrote about in Return of the coffeehouse - how to turn your library into an ideas factory, where we considered the importance of ‘platforms’ in building new ideas and services.  The dematerialised library - the library as software - provides a platform for the community to use in their quest to understand and enjoy our world and their place in it.  It becomes a true information and culture service rather than merely a technology for sharing and shipping informational and cultural artifacts.

What is a library?

Libraries are a technology for free, large scale inter-generational transfer of knowledge and culture. The fact that they have performed this purpose through the distribution of information technologies such as scrolls, codexes and newspapers for hundreds of years is merely a reflection of the technology available at the time. It’s time to reconsider our purpose.  Instead of processing, moving, accessioning and purchasing physical or digital items, librarians are better used to organise and share information and stories. Libraries run like this become creation engines.  They become more about creating and sharing a community’s ideas than providing access to the ideas of others.  Thinking about your library like this provides space for some innovative new approaches.

Consider Darien Library, which offers their community print-on-demand technology for both pubic domain works and self-publishing .  Or think of the academic libraries that publish works written by staff at their own university - a practice so widespread that Purdue University Press has published a book about successful library publishing strategies.   Now prepare for your brain to melt and read Nate Hill’s plan for world domination public libraries to become a local-publisher/Kickstarter/creators-&-writers-club mashup with not only completed works by local writers on their catalogue, but local works in progress on their catalogue.

Letting go of the desire to maintain ‘quality control’ and encouraging members to share their stories, like Darien has done and Hill proposes, can help libraries and the communities they serve reach their full potential.  Letting go of control allows libraries to encourage the development of innovative ways to create, store, retrieve and share stories and ideas.  In this model libraries cease to be a gatekeeper and become an enabler - helping our communities to share, learn and connect in ways that are otherwise not possible.


With these sorts of ideas in mind, and inspired by the ‘Apps for Democracy’ project in Washington DC, in 2011 the State Library of Queensland ran a competition called Libraryhack and opened up library data to innovative web developers.  The National Library of Australia has been working for some years to integrate data from a number of collection databases both within the NLA and in other organisations.  They have released a number of APIs  and rumour has it they are soon to release a single API for ‘Trove’,  their flagship information portal.  This will allow others individuals or organisations to create their own interfaces and tools to use Trove data. Meanwhile, Jason Griffey has created something potentially more subversive by forking the PirateBox to create LibraryBox  - a tiny, portable and off-grid wireless distribution point for ebooks, downloadable audio and any other electronic content libraries care to distribute.

These sorts of projects are just a taste of the sort of thing librarians could be turning their minds towards.

Wasted on the desk

At VALA2012 Eli Neiberger talked about librarians being ‘wasted on the desk’. His view is that instead of hanging around waiting to help people read spine labels, librarians should be ‘out the back’ building amazing tools like Griffey’s Library Box or the Trove API. Renew Newcastle operated mostly as a negotiator and explainer - they worked through the contracts, laws and regulations to work out how people could do what they wanted to do.  Rather than just providing access to information, libraries should be more active in finding solutions to help people use information. With ‘Open Government’ initiatives gaining traction in many nations, notably in the US under the Obama administration, Craig Thomler recently wrote about government agencies feeling that it was a waste of their resources to be making their data more usable.  Freedom of Information for them begins and ends with making the data available, whether it can be easily understood or not.  This presents a great opportunity for National, State and local libraries to make government truly open by building tools and standards for usable data. This could be extended to enable the creation and useful application of other local information, data, stories, expression.

All of this means we need to think more on Neiberger’s observation that people are now starting to pay for convenience rather than access.  Libraries were once at the forefront of providing both access and convenience, with early OPAC technology at the leading edge of what was then possible.  The general state of libraries’ information delivery is now so far below what people expect that we are being told en masse that “your library website stinks and it’s your fault. A good place to start afresh might be this article from Designing Better Libraries.

Allowing innovation to operate without capital

Marcus Westbury talks about Renew Newcastle a lot, and recently he followed up his Tedx talk with another one - this time talkling to architects and designers. Again, I was struck by something he said about what Renew Newcastle set out to do, because it applies just as equally to libraries.  Westbury’s comment was that Renew Newcastle set out to ‘enable innovation without the need for capital’.  If we combine the ideas of Westbury with Steven Johnson’s ideas about platforms we can envisage the library as a platform for enabling innovation, learning and cultural development to occur in our communities without the need for capital.  Isn’t that a lot more compelling than a place for lending books to people?

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