Sunday, July 06, 2008

Back to the future of the library

It seems that as I mull things over, I keep returning to the idea of the future of the library. But I don't want to investigate it in the sense of running an experiment. I want to do an ethnography.

I took an ethnography class in the spring and I became fascinated with the process of writing up field notes. Actually, taking the notes is pretty fascinating too. One of the best parts of the process is that while you observe in the field you withhold judgment about what to expect, what to look for, what to see even, and you just try to see what's there. It's actually very Buddhist in that way. There's no pretense that it's objective or any bullshit like that. Clearly, two people sitting side by side taking notes while watching the exact same scene will notice different things, take different notes, and when it comes time to write them up, will see different patterns and ascribe to the events different significance. But it still puts you into the most open-minded frame of reference that it's possible for you to have.

So, here I am in Austin where our public library has obtained public support (a bond election) to build a new downtown, central library. What must they have to think about on the brink of such an undertaking? How do they imagine the Austin Public Library in 5 years and on into the middle of the 21st century (say, 25 years down the road)? How do they plan for the future of an institution that is so rooted in the physicality of the book? Can they let themselves imagine a future where a library might not exist in any form like it exists today? Could I somehow be a participant observer, or just an observer of the process of thinking through those issues, spend maybe 6 months attending planning meetings (who knows if they even have such meetings, or if they already have it all planned out) and then write up my notes. I don't know anyone who works there, only people who work for the foundation and friends group that support the library. I suppose I ought to start talking to them about this, to see if it's too late to get involved.

Ah I just checked out the Austin Public Library's Web page that describes the design process and it looks like the timing couldn't be better: the teams that desire to be considered to design the new building have just submitted their qualifications and the top 3 will make presentations to the City Council in October. This looks pretty auspicious. There's a little slide show you can access at the top of the left side-bar on the Web page that shows the Design Team Selection Process. The Library already specifies several aspects of what they want in the new building, so I better get started with some emails today. This might not be possible at all. I at least need to know what's do-able.

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