Public libraries have always been a national treasure. COVID can help unlock their full potential

Public libraries have always been a national treasure. COVID can help unlock their full potential

Library books, stock photo.

See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

Forced by the COVID crisis to reassess how they serve their communities, our nation’s public libraries are finding new, innovative ways to enhance and expand their roles in our civic life.

In the 2020 election, libraries in several states will help collect large numbers of absentee and mail-in ballots. In recent months, with many of its physical facilities closed, the public library system continued to function, offering or expanding services such as curbside pickup, enhanced online offerings, increased hours for free Wi-Fi access and strengthened ties to school systems to help deliver distance learning. Some libraries dispatched workers to help citizens apply for unemployment benefits and immigration services, to staff food banks, to help conduct contact tracing, and to assist at homeless shelters.

As libraries across the nation begin to reopen, I believe our public library system will provide the infrastructure for educational, economic, and civic vitality in the digital age. The physical infrastructure already exists with 9,000 public libraries and approximately 17,000 library branches. But the pandemic has accelerated the reassessment and expansion of library services that has been underway for several years, spurred by the digital transformation of our world.

“Libraries’ eagerness to embrace changes in society, while retaining the foundations that have made them trusted, welcoming places for everyone, make them ideal partners in the digital age,” according to a prescient Aspen Institute report, “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries,” published in 2014. “In fact, libraries, more than any other institution have the stature and capacity to make the promise of the knowledge society available to all Americans.”

I agree, completely. In my new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” I argue that in this time of unprecedented change, it is essential to focus on what work is for. Human work, the work that only humans can do, must emphasize our unique human traits and capabilities by providing greater opportunities for learning, earning, and serving others. That triad forms a virtuous cycle that expands human potential and allows all of us to make a difference.

The digital age library will be the platform best equipped to help citizens learn and adapt to change—or to initiate it. The new library will be available 24/7, at the touch of a button on a smartphone or in an internet search engine.

Working adults with no education beyond high school will be able to access new learning and hone new skills at any hour. Students will tap into research and other data, day or night. Citizens will be able to find detailed information on their federal, state, and local governments. Voters will learn how to register and find out more about the candidates seeking their votes. And neighbors who want to help in their communities will be able to identify, with the library’s help, opportunities for service. And even those who lack broadband services will be able to visit their libraries to gain free internet access.

Yes, there will be challenges along the way. Communities need to ensure their libraries have adequate resources to build out their digital infrastructure, to inform the public of new, expanded services and to engage new groups of learners who haven’t in the past used the traditional library’s services. Always open, always free, the new public library will make continuous learning easier and more accessible in the digital age.

“Ubiquitous education and ubiquitous learning rise with ubiquitous computing,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center Internet Project. “Persistent education and learning are the reality as people march through their days with their smartphones and, soon, the Internet of Things embedded everywhere. The library as people, place and platform is the new knowledge institution that can serve all those needs.”

Eventually, as Lumina Foundation has long advocated, we will develop a system that formally recognizes the knowledge and skills gained from libraries, as well as from other non-academic entities such as social service organizations and the military. That may take time, but I am confident that welcome change will come.

The pandemic has brought many unwelcome changes to everyday life, but it has also sped the transformation of many of our institutions, including public libraries. They are now better positioned to assist men and women, young and old, to develop the knowledge, skills and talents for a future that will ask them to do what they are uniquely equipped to do: human work.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

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