This past Friday night I attended “Big Ideas For Busy People,” one of the events that opened the Cambridge Science Festival. Ten speakers, all of whom were either Harvard or MIT professors and several of whom were Nobel Prize winners and/or MacArthur geniuses, gave five-minute talks on a broad array of hot topics in science.
The talks touched mostly on things I knew next to nothing about: multiverses, the human microbiome, optogenetics, etc. Fascinating, but mostly beyond my comprehension.
I was very pleased, however, to leave the talks with an idea planted by the last speaker, Amy Smith, which has been incubating ever since.
Smith is a senior lecturer at MIT in the department of mechanical engineering. You can read all about her here and here. Please also take a look at what’s going on at the D-Lab, which she founded, and her TED talk.
Smith’s work deals primarily with appropriate design for developing countries. She talked about a 3-day design course she brought to remote villages in Africa which promoted creative capacity-building, co-creation and user-driven design. Rather than foisting “solutions” generated externally upon the community, the course empowers community members to create their own low-cost, sustainable inventions and ideas.
This program was tremendously inspiring, but it was a phrase Smith mentioned toward the end of her five minutes that really caught my attention. She spoke of the need to create “ecosystems of innovation and creativity,” rather than continuing to throw unsustainable development dollars at these communities.
How does this phrase apply to libraries? Well, given the uncertainty libraries face because of budget cuts, technological change and myriad other factors, and the identity crisis that necessarily ensues, we have the opportunity to reinvent libraries as ecosystems of innovation and creativity, a la the recent Make article on public libraries.
This is not to say that we give up on books (in whatever format) and reading. On the contrary, a vital part of this ecosystem would be collections of resources—in print, on the free web, on licensed databases—curated by librarians who know what makes their communities tick. Just as importantly, the library would function as a space for collaboration, engagement with new ideas and the creative practice of a variety of activities.
Skokie (IL) Public Library’s Digital Media Lab is one model of where this idea could go, but the great thing about this concept is that it is context-specific: the ecosystem will vary based on the specific needs of the community.
There is much work to be done to get us from here to there, but the creative capacity and passion of the library community itself gives me hope that this reinvention is possible and can be actualized.