discussing the commons

I?m in the Cerritos Public Library, waiting for the second day of the Information Commons meeting. There are several other bloggers here who are ?covering? the discussions. Eli Edwards, who posts great comments on my blog and has a terrific one of her own, is posting detailed notes. Jessamyn West, who has been running librarian.net since 1999, is here, but she has been deferring to Eli and Fred Stutzman to blog about the conference. Rick Emrich, the founder of Commons Blog , is also here. I don?t go to a lot of techie conferences, so it tickles me that posts are appearing online as people talk.

The library is astounding. It?s new and cost the city $47 million. Disney designers from nearby Anaheim helped to plan it, and it?s a kind of public-sector Disneyland. The children?s section, for example, contains a full-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex and a huge salt-water tank with sharks and a coral reef. There?s a lighthouse big enough to sit inside and various high-tech gizmos such as tv screens that show the visiting kids in various exotic settings. There are also books.

Each section is ?themed? in similar ways. There?s a baronial, gothic library with vaulted stone ceilings, leather chairs, leather-bound books, and a fake electric hearth. The large Asian book section is supposed to look like Shanghai circa 1930 (when Indiana Jones visited).

I wish I could take my kids here; they could have fun for a whole day. I?m impressed that a smallish community would put so many resources into a public facility devoted to learning (whatever you may think of their taste). However, this is a conference about the ?commons,? and it strikes me that the Cerritos Library is almost antithetical to the ideal of a commons. The model here is a democratic-consumerist one. The city hired expert librarians to spend $47 million of public funds in the private sector to purchase tailored experiences for individual patrons. Because everything is finished to a high sheen, planned to the last millimeter, and high-tech, there are few ways for citizens or groups to contribute. In fact, the typical urban public library?with its dirty, peeling, whitewashed walls and aging collections?may actually make a better commons. Often the walls are covered by children?s art, the new purchases are funded by bake sales, and the special events are organized by neighbors. (My wife, for example, runs a weekly “Children’s Book Bingo” event at our local library every summer.)

I don?t think it?s fair that Cerritos should have a $47 million library unless the libraries in South Central Los Angeles are also well equipped, which they probably aren?t. However, paradoxically, the people of this affluent community may have bought themselves out of the commons and deprived themselves of the satisfactions of public work.

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1 Response to discussing the commons

  1. jessamyn says:

    I find that I can either blog about something I am attending or listen attentively and it was too important for me at this get-together to at least try to listen attentively that I decided not to blog it. At a lot of librarian events, people talk slowly and I listen quickly [especially to messages I have heard a million times before] so it’s easy to blog between the cracks. I felt like while I conceptually understand the commons idea, I have no idea how ALA understands it or, more importantly, what the heck they were trying to accomplish at that conference.

    For my part, I met some wonderful people, hatched a few schemes and got some ideas of where I want to go, but quite frankly, unless ALA as an organization is willing to put their organization where their marketing dollars are [and please not another @ your library campaign] and publish under an open access model and just generally be more democratic and open (to say nothing about getting a clue about technology the way the ALA-WA office has been able to), I see the commons concept passing them, and a lot of libraries, by.

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