Libraries are not only about content. From Babylonian, Egyptian, and Roman times, they have also defined the means for organizing and controlling knowledge. Libraries were built and destroyed as icons of culture and power. The rise of democratic concepts about the value that each individual brings to society, as well as the rise of industry led to new ideas about libraries in the eighteenth century, especially in the fertile fields of democratic experimentation known as the United States. The need for access to books and periodicals in a growing nation was demonstrated in colonial days by ‘for fee’ circulating libraries and subscription libraries that served as social clubs (for example, Benjamin Franklin’s Junto where personal collections were shared with other members). By the early 1800’s, public school libraries and a growing number of locally supported “public libraries” led forward thinking leaders to envision publicly supported access to books, and set the stage for Massachusetts and New Hampshire to pass authorizing legislation for public libraries in 1848 and 1849 respectively. With the opening of the Boston Public Library in 1854, the free public library as a government-supported institution was instantiated. This development accelerated in the late nineteenth century, spurred especially by Andrew Carnegie, who provided $50 million for buildings between 1881 and 1920—funds that supported 1412 buildings in the US alone. Carnegie, himself an immigrant, said he chose libraries because they “gave nothing for nothing. They only help people who help themselves.” This combination of access to opportunity and self-determination reverberates in American culture.
We see in the 19th century, the public library as democracy’s offer to citizens to learn, to grow, and to participate. The idea of sharing knowledge to enable good citizenship engenders many cross-currents inherent in social-political policy, and today this idea is given new incarnation in the global Internet environment. Like public education, the pubic library as developed and refined in the US has been at the core of economic progress and social leadership. Today we seek visions for how the basic concepts of cooperation and sharing intellectual capital for both personal and public good will be instantiated in an inter-connected world.
ibiblio represents one bold vision to meet this challenge. It integrates the public library legacy and recent developments in digital libraries with the success of the open source software movement, and aims to extend this success to other fruits of the intellect. The Apache, GNU, and Linux communities have been growing useful libraries for years, capitalizing on the synergies of community feedback and improvement. The Linux Software Map, stands as a bottom-up bibliographic standard for contributed code, and the advantages of open community access are now trumpeted across disciplines. It seems obvious that “sharing” is the right thing to do. Atoms demonstrate this in sharing electrons to form molecules; organisms demonstrate this in sharing DNA to evolve; leaders show this “knowledge” in sharing their time and talents to build institutions and companies; artists “know” this in their passion to create expressions that touch others; and scholars “know” this in publishing their discoveries and ideas for others to use. Those of you who have enjoyed Simon Winchester’s the “Professor and the Madman” story of the Oxford English Dictionary appreciate the value that community contributions of word usages play in making that pillar of the English language so beneficial. Libraries exemplify sharing of resources with their clientele but also within the library community itself—as exemplified by OCLC’s bibliographic database that librarians contribute to and use.
ibiblio will open a new chapter in the evolution of the public library in that the public’s original contributions will be as important as its use of the information that is already contained in the library. Imagine the possibilities for citizen participation, for emergent interactions! Imagine the challenges! Chaos is both the laboratory of innovation and a rationale for repression. Whether cast as the tensions between intellectual property that fires economic engines and our inclinations to share freely, or the dilemmas of privacy and “appropriate” content, ibiblio will face the same socio-political challenges that public libraries have always faced, but exacerbated by new technological tools that amplify the issues and perhaps offer some solutions. What could be more exciting than to be part of such a grand challenge and to witness its birth today?
Thank you for your attention. Let us go forward to create the public’s new library.
September 11, 2000