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Editors’ Choice: Library as Platform

In May, 2007, Facebook was generating over 40 billion page views a month by providing its users with carefully constructed and controlled services. Yet on May 24, 2007 Mark Zuckerberg took the company in a new direction: developers outside of the company would be given access to many of the services and data at the heart of the work done by Facebook’s own development team. These external developers would be empowered to build whatever independent applications they wanted. The result was an outburst of creativity resulting in thousands and then hundreds of thousands of non-Facebook applications that expanded Facebook’s services and integrated it into other sites — each app potentially making Facebook more valuable to its users.

Facebook is in many ways an anti-model for libraries, but from this one action libraries can learn much. On May 24, 2007, Facebook became a platform: a set of resources — services, data, tools — that enable independent developers to create applications. Interesting possibilities open up if we think of libraries as platforms…open platforms.

A library platform would be about developing knowledge and community, not primarily for developing software. Still, like an open software platform, it would:

Unlike a typical software platform:

One aim of this switch is to think of a library not as a portal we go through on occasion, but as infrastructure that is as ubiquitous and persistent as the streets and sidewalks of a town, or the classrooms and yards of a university. Think of the library as co-extensive with the geographic area it serves, like a canopy, or as we say these days, like a cloud.

But there’s another, and I think more important, reason to think about libraries as platforms: it focuses our attention away from the provisioning of resources to the foment those resources engender. A library as platform would give rise to messy, rich networks of people and ideas, continuously sparked and maintained by the library’s resources. A library as platform is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub.

There’s a third reason to think of libraries as platforms. Facebook chose to become a platform because doing so increased its value. As a platform, a library will serve its users better, serve more users, better accomplish its cultural and educational missions, and build a bulwark of value against looming cutbacks. Further, and crucially, a library platform can continuously increase its value by providing access to that which is built on it.

But, what would it mean for a library to become a platform? This is not just a Gestalt switch or a marketing trick. It requires real work and investment. So, what would change? After all, physical libraries already offer services, data, and tools, just as software platforms do. The data are the books, magazines, DVDs, etc. The tools include electronic catalogs for finding works, and step ladders for reaching the high shelves. The services include the expertise of reference librarians, and the work done behind the scenes by, for example, the collection development team and the cataloguers. On top of this “platform” are built itineraries for family trips, genealogies, homework assignments, and happy summer afternoons reading Elmore Leonard.

But two pieces are missing from traditional libraries that keep them from actually counting as platforms. First, a platform should provide access to everything it can, including some treasures traditional have yet to make available. Second, the library as platform will enable social knowledge networks to emerge and flourish. With these two changes, libraries can change from portals to platforms.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: