You are the library

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A combination of hi-tech enabling technologies and good old-fashioned human interaction can grow the library offer exponentially.

I’ve been talking a lot on this blog about the new exchange economy and the ways in which new tech companies are willing to work with libraries. But that’s only part of the picture.

Libraries have been the locus of oral history and listening projects for a number of years. For example, the Human Library has been hosted by public libraries and other organisations across the globe, including Denmark, Canada and South Korea – as well as The Idea Store in Canary Wharf and Swiss Cottage Library in Camden. The idea is that you book time to hear someone’s personal story – much like a human book – with the aim of increasing mutual respect, tolerance and understanding.

Another current/trend that complements these developments is the idea of Timebanking. A reciprocal scheme where you receive help/time in return for volunteering time given. A number of local authorities are sponsoring time banking, including Barnet Council, which has set up an enquiry centre in East Finchley library and is looking to roll the scheme out across the borough shortly. They have partnered with Timebank, a national volunteering charity to roll out their local scheme.

Team London, originally set up for the Olympics in 2012 is an online portal where people and charities can search for pro-bono support, including professional services such as graphic design and coding. Libraries could easily benefit from the huge good will and pool of skills available in London.

A few libraries have taken this idea further, creating experimental spaces that don’t have any books in at all – but are there for wireless and face-to-face networking and co-working. An example of this is The Edge, a bookless library space in Brisbane, Australia. There are some interesting analyses of how well these spaces actually work but a key finding is that if different people’s names/interests are displayed publicly they’re more likely to seek each other out and use the space as it was imagined.

However this is still a relatively untapped area with great potential for library service development. I think that the key to making local time banking or professional networking work within a library environment lies within that most under-utilised of assets – the library card. While public libraries are justifiably concerned about privacy and data protection, a voluntary scheme where people could list their skills and interests and register their presence in the library via their library card/online interface, then browse for other library users via the library database and book a slot to talk to them for 15 or 30 minutes would be relatively simple to implement. Timebanking could also be built into the interface. So you would go to your library to learn some basic Japanese before going on holiday, to find other entrepreneurs with similar interests or complementing skills, to find someone to walk your dog after you have an operation, or just to hear someone talk about their past. The library would still be a library, but it would lend people as well as books and other media.

(Image: Cloned Milkmen – How to scan your library card)

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