Libraries: The Center for Sustainable Adoption

Libraries have a bright future, particularly in small and medium–sized communities. As the Knowledge Economy continues to change the way business is conducted, both locally and globally, libraries can play an essential economic development role as well as enhance community and civic life. Indeed, by changing and adapting their role and mission slightly, libraries could enter a “Golden Age,” where the venerable institution plays a more central role in the community, with a commensurate increase in funding.

The traditional role of libraries is not going away. We still need access to books, but just as important, we need access to online resources as well. For more than a decade, libraries have provided free public access to the Internet, often at much higher speeds than are typically available from homes and some businesses. Even though access to the Internet is much more common than it was ten years ago, many libraries are expanding the number of Internet workstations because of steady demand for access. Just as libraries treat books as a shared resource that lowers the cost of access, libraries can subscribe to specialized commercial databases like Lexis/Nexis, legal databases, commercial databases, and other kinds of specialized information. The access to those specialized resources is then available to everyone in the community. Libraries can also share access to specialized local information as well, like GIS databases maintained by local governments. Citizens usually cannot afford the specialized software needed to make full use of such information, but a GIS workstation in the library makes that available to all.

As the cost of travel continues to increase, videoconferencing will play an increasingly important role as a way to participate in meetings without the expense of travel. The library can provision a conference room for video meetings; the space would be available to local leaders, citizens, and to business people. Business use of the facility would be based on payment of a modest fee, creating a new revenue stream for the library that would help offset the cost of support and maintenance.

Libraries have an important economic development role to play. Small businesses and entrepreneurial start–ups continue to create a large majority of jobs, and these smaller companies can benefit greatly from library–provided services, including reference desk services, access to online databases, use of “business quality” meeting rooms at the library for client meetings, and use of the videoconference equipment for business and client meetings. Some of these services, like meeting rooms and videoconference facilities, can be provided to businesses for a fee, creating new streams of revenue to support the expanded library mission.

Opportunities abound for libraries. The question is, "Will they adapt and change to take on new and important roles that will help promote improved use and adoption of broadband?"

Note: This article has been cross-posted at Broadband for America.