Building the New Nostalgia

Why libraries matter

June 27, 2015

"Building the New Nostalgia" panelists: (left to right) Jennifer Pahlka, Dale Dougherty, Meaghan O'Connor, John Palfrey, Carol Coletta
"Building the New Nostalgia" panelists: (left to right) Jennifer Pahlka, Dale Dougherty, Meaghan O'Connor, John Palfrey, Carol Coletta

On Friday, Carol Coletta and John Bracken of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation moderated a session titled, “Building the New Nostalgia: Making the Case for Why Libraries Matter.” The moderators and panelists agreed that librarians have an obligation to answer the question, “Why do we need libraries?” We all, librarians and citizens, need to be answering that question.

Dale Dougherty, founder and executive chairman of Maker Media; Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code for America; John Palfrey, head of school at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; and Meaghan O’Connor, assistant director for programs and partnerships at the District of Columbia Public Library offered insightful remarks. Each tried to answer that question before the session was opened up for general conversation and input from the audience.

Inspired by Palfrey’s new book, BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic, 2015), panel members discussed the role of libraries in the digital age.

When he was asked, “Are libraries necessary to the digital age?” Palfrey responded emphatically, “Yes, absolutely.” His comment set the tone for the rest of the conversation. As we transition to a more participatory, digital culture, he said, libraries are becoming a site for the creation of new communities. “Libraries are more important than ever,” Palfrey said, “because people are withdrawing from communities, and libraries are a great counterforce for that.”

In discussing the library’s physical space, O’Connor observed that patrons are moving from a transactional experience in the library to a transformational experience: “It starts with being a great place where people are coming and having a transformational experience.”

For Dougherty, that transformational experience happens through Maker events, which offer a way to engage users. “It’s about more than putting 3D printers in the library; it’s about building a community around those tools,” he said.

Similarly, Pahlka discussed a “code for the city” event held at the Austin (Tex.) Public Library. The library became a space where users developed a sense of community as they worked together to better their city.

O’Connor acknowledged the difficulty that libraries face when designing a user experience. She asked, “How do we balance the need to build around users and the need to keep up with technology without getting behind?”

Palfrey described the sense of nostalgia that users have for things in the libraries: “Libraries expanded users’ worlds, and we need to build in nostalgia today. It is possible to incorporate the wonders of the past into today.” Coletta picked up on Palfrey’s comment and concluded, “We can do things together that we can’t do alone. It’s all about possibility.”

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