Innovation

Hey Airbnb, take it easy on libraries, they're leading the charge in tech more than ever

Libraries recently drew unexpected fire from Airbnb, one of tech's hottest startups. But the truth is libraries play an essential role in fostering technological innovation in communities.

The Madison Public Library Bubbler Media Lab is a place for the public to collaborate and create.
The Madison Library Media Lab

Last week technology giant Airbnb was heavily scrutinized for a series of advertisements that took a jab at libraries and other taxpayer-funded institutions placed around the company's home city of San Francisco.

The advertisements mocked public services allegedly funded in part by the company's recent $12 million tax bill (though some disputed how far Airbnb's tax contribution actually went). Airbnb is valued at close to $25 billion and it has raised nearly $2.3 billion in funding since 2008. The advertisements on billboards and posters around San Francisco were placed in response to Proposition F, an amendment that would tax and regulate Airbnb inside the city of San Francisco by restricting the number of days a private residence can be rented, and requiring renters to file quarterly reports with the city.

The advertisements were perceived as insensitive, and quickly animated public workers and librarians across the country who used social media services to verbalize how libraries play a vital role in community development by working at the forefront of technology and making information accessible to the public.

Technology and innovation, said Tana Elias, Digital Services & Marketing Manager at the Madison Public Library, are in the DNA of the modern public library. "It's important to remember that books were the original information technology," said Elias. "So were other forms of media like cassettes, vinyl, laser discs and CDs. Technology changes, and so do libraries."

You'll always be able to check books out from the library, she said, but patrons can now also check out seeds to grow in home gardens, learn to code modern websites using super-fast data connections, record albums in media labs, and even learn video game design. "Today, [libraries] provided access to it all," said Elias.

The modern library still resembles the traditional library, said Christopher Platt, Vice President for Library Services at The New York Public Library. "We still provide room for patron browsing, reading, studying, doing research, doing homework, crafting resumes, catching up on the news or taking advantage of a quiet spot in a hectic city."

What has changed, said Platt, is "a whole range of library offerings and services that aren't visible to the naked eye unless you're looking at them through the screen of a computer, laptop, or handheld device: ebooks are a fifth of our book circulation. Our digitized research collections bring new life to millions of items normally tucked away for preservation purposes in the archives."

The mission of the public library is to provide all people with free and open access to information and opportunity. According to the Library Research Service nearly 97% of all public libraries provide free internet access, both at terminals and to mobile devices using WiFi. Serving as a public internet access point, said Platt, is a big draw and has allowed libraries to reach a previously under-served audience.

According to the American Library Association in 2014 more than 200 thousand computers terminals in public libraries served over 340 million internet sessions to patrons. "Some of our internet use is casual web surfing, but a lot of it is research, job applications, and skill training," said Trent Miller, Library Program Coordinator for the Madion, Wisconsin public library. "I don't think the public realizes just how many people rely on the access we provide to the internet," he said.

New web consumers also create new types of innovation, said Benjamin Ibarra, Public Relations Officer for the San Francisco Public Library. In addition to providing traditional library services that help increase technology proficiency like family literacy classes, tutoring, and health and financial literacy programs, the San Francisco Public Library is working with the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California to provide public internet access at the blazing-fast speed of 10 gigabits per second. The faster the speed, the better the public can create and collaborate, said Ibarra.

In June, 2015 the San Francisco Public Library opened The Mix SFPL, a 4,770-square-foot digital media center aimed and learning lab aimed at teenagers. "The Mix at SFPL offers teens a state-of-the-art recording studio, a Hollywood-worthy video production space, a bank of high-end digital equipment, and a makerspace with many of today's leading fabrication technologies," said Ibarra.

"Libraries are shifting from content consumption spaces, to content creation spaces," said Trent Miller. He helps run the Madison, Wisconsin Public Library's Bubbler Media Lab. The lab provides access to and training on modern hardware (3D printers, cameras, mics and mixers) and software (ProTools, the Unreal Engine) creation tools. Hip-hop artist Rob Dz recorded his record 'The Good Guy Memoirs' in the Madison lab. "[Libraries] aren't just about books, they're about people and stories," Miller said.

The modern librarian must be a technologist, said Jim Blanton, the director of the Louisville Free Public Library in Louisville, Kentucky. The librarian today must be a "passionate individual who uses technology to interact with the public. Libraries are no longer quiet, storehouses of books, but rather bustling community spaces," he said. Librarians in Louisville "actively provide technology training in community centers, and create pop-up libraries in parks and community venues. The operating principle is that libraries now go to the users, rather than always expecting them to visit the library."

Rather than function as a drain on taxpayer dollars, as Airbnb implied with their series of advertisements, in the digital age libraries have transformed themselves into community hubs for technological collaboration, creation, and innovation. And judging by the backlash, the public thinks there are few things more worthy of their tax dollars than libraries.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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