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Data Reinvents Libraries for the 21st Century

Libraries are proving that they’re more than mausoleums of old knowledge -- they’re in a state of progressive reform, rethinking services and restructuring with data.

Libraries can evoke tired assumptions. It could be a stack of battered books and yesteryear movies; that odd odor of wilted pages and circa-1970s decor; or it could be a bout of stereotypes, like obsolete encyclopedias and ruler-snapping librarians.

Whatever the case, the truth is that today libraries are proving they’re more than mausoleums of old knowledge. They’re in a state of progressive reform, rethinking services and restructuring with data. It’s a national trend as libraries modernize, strategize and recast themselves as digital platforms. They’ve taken on the role of data curator for information coming in and citizen-generated data going out. They host civic hacker hubs. They serve as booming e-book distributors. They provide digital clinics for aspiring technophiles.

It could be called a refresh to a retro institution, a data movement that’s growing organically in spurts. According to latest 2013 statistics from the American Library Association’s Digital Inclusion Survey, 97.5 percent of libraries help visitors complete online government forms, 74.1 percent support e-government and civic engagement programs, 98 percent offer technology training, and 53.3 percent provide office space to a mobile workforce. And data is a common thread running through all of these services.

Headlining acts are many. They include the Boston Public Library that, with the help of  the Knight Foundation, merged Boston’s city data with local library catalogs. New York and Chicago’s public libraries are seeding data pursuits by loaning Wi-Fi hot spots. Then there are cities like Scottsdale, Ariz., and Washington, D.C. -- two library systems that have added makerspaces to cultivate a community of tech startups and civic disruptors. And the list of innovators goes on.

Forging New Ground

Nate Hill is among this band of progressives. As a data zealot who believes in data’s inclination for innovation, the former deputy director for Tennessee’s Chattanooga Public Library, led a charge to transform the library into a data centric community hub. The library boasts an open data portal that it manages for the city, a civic hacker lab, a makerspace for community projects, and expanded access to in-person and online tutorials for coding and other digital skill sets. It’s a goal he accomplished with the help of the city, the civic tech group Open Chattanooga, and philanthropies like the Benwood and the John S. and James L. Knight foundations.

The draw in data sharing and creating, Hill said, comes from the realization that today’s data channels are no longer one-way systems.

“I push people to the idea that now it’s about being a producer rather than just a consumer," Hill said, "because really that whole idea of a read-write Web comes from the notion that you and I, for example, are just as capable at editing Wikipedia articles on the fly and changing information as anybody else."

For libraries, Hill sees this as an opportunity and asks what institution can better pioneer the new frontier of information exchange. He posits the idea that, as the original public content curator, adding open data to libraries is only natural. In fact, he says it’s a logical next step when considering that traditional media like books, research journals and other sources infuse data points with rich context — something most city and state open data portals typically don’t do.

“The dream here is to treat the library as a different kind of community infrastructure,” Hill said. “You can conceivably be feeding live data about a city into an open data portal, and at the same time, turning the library into a real live information source — rather than something just static.”

In Chattanooga, an ongoing effort is in the works to do just that. The library seeks to integrate open data into its library catalog searches. Visitors researching Chattanooga’s waterfront could do a quick search and pull up local books, articles and mapping documents, but also a collection of latest data sets on water pollution and land use, for example.

Eyeing the library data movement at scale, Hill said he could easily envision a network of public libraries that act as local data hubs, retrieving and funneling data into larger state and national data portals. On May 4, Hill became the executive director for the Metropolitan New York Library Council, a nonprofit advocacy group serving New York City and Westchester County. While he’s still investigating possibilities, the hope is to implement something of a similar nature for New York libraries.

“This implementation that we have here in Chattanooga hasn’t been implemented yet by many," he said, "but there’s no reason why it couldn’t."

Nationalizing a Movement

Offering a glimpse of the data movement at the national level is the Digital Public Library of America, based in Boston Public Library. The DPLA brings together openly available digital content from libraries, government jurisdictions, historical archives and museums, and makes it freely accessible to citizens everywhere.

It does this in two ways: by hosting an easily searchable database of items from contributing organizations — using identifiable macro data — to refer visitors back to contributor sites; and with a sophisticated application programming interface (API) so developers can insert content directly into their Web and mobile apps.

No niche endeavor, the DPLA has a growing database of more than 10 million items from 1,600-plus contributors. These range from prestigious organizations like the Smithsonian to rural county historical societies. Content is diverse too. There are about 2.5 million e-books, millions of photographs from the 1850s to present, more than 100,000 maps of towns and counties, and artwork numbering in the tens of thousands -- all of which are joined by manuscripts and audio-visual materials in abundance.

“We launched with about 2 million items from 500 institutions [in 2013], and just two years later, we’ve more than tripled the number of contributing institutions and more than quintupled our total items,” said DPLA’s Executive Director Dan Cohen. “It’s been a pretty rapid growth scale.”

The service has obvious benefits to entrepreneurs, educators and researchers seeking information; however, it’s highly beneficial to contributors as well. The API processes an average of about 3 million queries per month and top performing contributors have doubled their site’s entire web traffic since they joined. As collections grow it’s likely queries can only increase.

“I think libraries see that when they contribute their data to the overall pool, they get a lot of advantages with many people finding their content for the first time,” Cohen said.

The DPLA may also be a succor to local libraries’ purse strings. In the ALA survey, it's noted that the primary challenges impacting library services are financial. Nationally staffing levels have been reduced and purchasing power to expand collections has dwindled. If such data initiatives like the DPLA’s were able to consolidate collections, limited funding at local libraries might be redirected toward providing other resources.

With an ambition to scale operations, Cohen said the DPLA has partnered with like-minded institutions across the U.S. to aid in data collection — an admittedly hefty task. Serving as official “service hubs” for less tech-savvy libraries, the DPLA has a growth plan on track to place one service hub in each state by 2017.

“We’ll have a coast-to-coast digital network for ingesting data from across the country,” Cohen said.

Beyond this, the DPLA plans to continue diversifying its content. Similarly it will evangelize services to app developers — its primary users — who present a number of apps in the DPLA app library. Some of the apps connect photos to user locations, others link content to Wikipedia articles, while others serve as DPLA analyzing services to see where and how digital items come in.

Long term, Cohen said the broader vision is to be a democratizing force for education and research in the digital age. The Internet has forever widened the definition of open information, and with it, online access takes precedent over physical visits. To support the DPLA major philanthropic funders like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Knight and others have committed millions to stake the enterprise. And Cohen says he’s confident the library will have a lasting presence.

“We’re building it to really implement a multi-decade effort,” Cohen said. “We’re building this to be around for the long run.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.