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The Role of Libraries in Communities, The Global Street Concept and Civil Participation In Society

City of Flows Day Two Overview & Reflections

What's the role of libraries in the digital age, now that ever more information is available anywhere? How did the rise of the internet and smartphones affect this century old institution? What new opportunities for participation does technology offer and how does this affect local authorities? During my second day of the multidisciplinary City of Flows conference in Potsdam, Germany last month, these and other questions were addressed.

Libraries as a Place, Space & Relation
A first perspective on how libraries can still be relevant institutions in the digital age was offered by Knud Schulz , who has worked in the Aarhus library (Denmark) for over 20 years. Based on experiences with new library concepts and projects, his library is currently constructing a new building called the Aarhus Urban Mediascape. Schulz emphasized that a library should be seen as a place, as a space and as a relation. Developing the library as relation means to develop and present information in cooperation with other cultural institution, local civil society and residents. The library as a place relates to the library as a hub in a city's fabric, while the library as a space is constituted by the social aspect (meeting others, community center, concerts, platform for local debates, etc.) and the bodily aspect (comfy chair, great architecture, the library cafe, etc.). This concept puts the user (rather than books) at the center of the library and offers a bodily and social experience that virtual interaction cannot offer, at least not in the same way.

In the last decades, the Aarhus library found new ways of fulfilling its public task to make information available publicly, by improving skills (e.g. computer courses for elderly people), by arousing people's curiosity by presenting information on an innovative way and by presenting information thematically whilst using multiple media formats. As an example, Schulz' library developed the iFloor, by which library content can be browsed by walking on a sensor-equiped screen carpet. In Schulz' experience this has drastically increased interaction between library visitors. More examples can be found in Schulz' intriguing presentation.

The fact that libraries make active use of new technologies to present information was also a central aspect in the presentation of Erik Boekesteijn, who works at the DOK library in Delft, the Netherlands. As an example he presented a multi-touch table that enables library members to access the city archive with their library card. The table recognizes the library card and presents archive material (old pictures, maps, etc.) from the member's neighborhood. Files can then be shared, for example by mail. Note that the presented information was already available on the city archive's website. The formal accessibility was already there, the role of the library was to present existing information in a tempting way.

The new role of libraries in the digital age was also addressed by Nathalie Vallet, who studies libraries in Belgium and the Netherlands. She found that the development of new libraries are a tested way for local governments to strengthen their city's profile, often by landmark architecture. She added that such prestige library projects in the city center also reinforce attention for less spectacular libraries that play an important social role on the neighborhood community level.

The City: An Emancipating Entity
The afternoon program was kicked of by Saskia Sassen, one of the most influential geographers. For her, the city is an emancipating entity, a "machine" that produces but also counters forces of globalization and capitalism. For those familiar with Sassen's work these are reoccurring themes. She put forward the Global Street concept, in which see sees parallels between different types of recent protest movements around the globe. Between mass protests against youth unemployment rates in Spain, the world-wide occupy movement (in which Sassen herself is involved) and of course the recent and current protests in the Middle East and North Africa. As such, Sassen emphasized the importance of public space as the space in which "the social and political are made". She emphasized (physical) streets and  squares as constituting this public space, although she did not completely disagree with comments from the public that social networks now also play similar public functions. However, the role of technology in all this is an enabling one from Sassen's perspective: she dislikes the term "Twitter Revolution" to refer to the Egypt regime change protests and prefers to call it a "Revolution of the People". As some conference participants observed, Sassen's talk was very similar to the ones that can be viewed online.

Citizen Participation And The Role of Civil Society
This theme was further explored by Hermann Voesgen and Michael Daxner. Voesgen addressed the relationship between protest movements in the sixties and seventies, and contemporary citizen participation on a local level. He observes that participation has been integrated in local government structures, although there are still problems of accessibility and democratic legitimacy. The discussion dealt more with the character of societal change in the 20th century, rather than with how technology and information availability have drastically changed participation. Although not analyzed in detail in the discussion, the spectacular increase in accessibility of information through publicly available government plans and policies, as well as crowd-sourced information (Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap), are of great value in informed decision making in participatory processes.

All in all the second conference day reaffirmed the findings from the first day: the digital and analog world affect each other in multiple ways and can not be separated entirely. Technology gets integrated in society more and more and should not be studied as separate phenomenon. As the discussions about libraries and participation on the conference showed, there is more interesting stuff to be expected in coming years.


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