Monday, March 14, 2011

Fostering creativity is the new essential service

This is an extremely exciting time, culturewise. Technology is proving to be a great equalizer in who gets to be creative and share their output. Applications to create and edit images, audio, video, and software are no longer limited only to professionals. Any of this output can be posted to the internet, where it has the potential to find a worldwide niche audience. Libraries, meanwhile, are still largely stuck purveying books, movies, and music from the old guard: those artists who by talent or luck managed to convince larger entities to bankroll and distribute their work.

Libraries originally carried books, and later other media formats, and then computers, to provide resources that their members couldn't or didn't want to acquire and store themselves. I'm starting to think that the real purpose of a library is to offer access to educational and recreational things that most people don't have on their own. We can't cap library services at this arbitary point. Libraries need to continue to provide for their communities those resources which aren't accessible in most households.

User-generated media is the next big step in our educational/recreational culturescape. I think libraries could really reassert their relevance by putting those tools in the hands of their users. Chicago Public Library's YOUmedia and Charlotte Mecklenberg Library's Studio i, teen learning spaces packed with media creation tools and software, are excellent examples. It doesn't seem fair to limit this just to teens, though. Imagine if libraries were places where members of the community could go to learn how to express themselves creatively and to fully realize their ideas with current technology. As library futurist Joan Frye Williams said, we need to "stop being the grocery store and start being the kitchen."

Movies and computers are currently the biggest draw at most libraries. Providing these resources for those users who can't afford them on their own remains important, but we can't limit ourselves to the most obvious have-nots. A growing swath of our core usership will have home computers and affordable access to commercially-distributed media, as costs drop and more households consider these justifiable standard-of-living expenses. To remain relevant, libraries need to be offering services that most potential users don't have on their own. Providing static, professionally-produced media was sufficient for a long time, but a new area of community need is opening up that requires a thought shift in what libraries are really for. I say the job of libraries is to provide resources for learning and fun that aren't readily available in the average household. Training and access to media creation are going to be essential community services that libraries should absolutely provide.

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