Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation

Last week I attended the Aspen Institute Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, a gathering of 30 individuals from a variety of backgrounds (both library and non-library) whose goal was to have 3 days worth of discussions about how to make libraries in the United States more innovative. I don’t know if the entire list of participants has been made public, but the attendees were easily some of the smartest and most thoughtful people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. As I mentioned in my initial post about the Roundtable, I was concerned about diversity in the voices in the room, and while I’m not qualified to truly judge how well that went, I did notice one particular bias that I am interested in calling out and pursuing as a part of the conversation. But more on that in a minute.

The roundtable opened day one with a presentation by John Seely Brown, otherwise known simply as JSB. If you aren’t familiar with JSB, take a second and look over his wikipedia page to get an idea of his importance. His speech was interesting and set the stage for a lot of the discussions that sprang forth over the next few days. Take a look:

Day two began with a presentation on Design Thinking from Michelle Ha Tucker from IDEO. I’m totally sold on human centered design as a key to rethinking the way libraries do what they do, and have done a number of workshops on process on that front. If you aren’t familiar, take a look at her presentation, framed well around library issues:

From our initial discussions about innovation considered broadly, we broke up into three working groups that set about considering what it would take for Libraries to innovate in different areas. The areas identified were Engagement/Access/Inclusion, Learning & Creativity, and Public Forum & Citizenship, and each group discussed what innovation in each of these areas looked like, how that could be translated into the library sphere, and what a project might look like if it attempted to instantiate that solution. I was a part of the Public Forum & Citizenship group, and we spent most of our time revolving around the problem of libraries acting in concert with one another and bemoaning the lack of overarching structures for working together…a common theme from the larger discussions of the Roundtable.

There were several of these emergent themes that repeated themselves during the week. The lack of some form of national organization that allowed economic centralization for libraries was maybe the largest though…the non-librarians in the room were flabbergasted to discover how very local the library economy is, and how much it prohibits collective purchasing efforts.

The largest tension in the discussions for me was the bias that I alluded to earlier, that of urban vs rural libraries. There was repeated use of a statistic that I’m still not clear on the provenance of, that 295 libraries in the U.S. serve 30% of the population of the country…obviously all of them in large urban areas. Anyone familiar with Libraryland could name the large public library systems included in those numbers: New York Public, Los Angeles Public, Chicago Public, Boston Public, Miami-Dade, Denver Public, and a small handful more. Given that there are roughly 9000 public libraries in the U.S., I understand the concentration on those areas of easy implementation…but I rankle more than a little at the lack of acknowledgement of the greater need for support in rural America. The poorest parts of rural America are much poorer than the equivalent urban poverty centers, and they lack nearly any support system for their poverty. In much of the poorest areas of the U.S., the rural south, the public library is the only place that’s accessible for educational resources beyond school age.

So while I understand striking with efforts where the highest number might be affected, I also want to keep reminding people about the needs of the rural United States. Let’s not forget those that need us most even while we try to maximize our efforts.


One of the largest discussions of the Roundtable revolved around the FCC and its eRate plans for internet access in libraries and schools. An FCC staffer was there to walk through the options for libraries, and to give us numbers on how bad library participation in eRate really is. Everyone in the room agreed why this was the case, the CIPA requirement for filtering. It was nice timing that just after our discussion of this issue, the ALA released a formal statement on CIPA that begins, in part:

“CIPA specifically requires public libraries and schools seeking e-rate discounts for internet connections to install technology protection measures, i.e., content filters, to block two categories of visual images that are unprotected by the First Amendment: obscene images and images of child pornography.”

and concludes

“CIPA-mandated content filtering has had three significant impacts in our schools and libraries. First, it has widened the divide between those who can afford to pay for personal access and those who must depend on publicly funded (and filtered) access. Second, when content filtering is deployed to limit access to what some may consider objectionable or offensive, often minority viewpoints religions, or controversial topics are included in the categories of what is considered objectionable or offensive. Filters thus become the tool of bias and discrimination and marginalize users by denying or abridging their access to these materials. Finally, when over-blocking occurs in public libraries and schools, library users, educators, and students who lack other means of access to the Internet are limited to the content allowed by unpredictable and unreliable filters.

The negative effects of content filters on Internet access in public libraries and schools are demonstrable and documented. Consequently, consistent with previous resolutions, the American Library Association cannot recommend filtering. However the ALA recognizes that local libraries and schools are governed by local decision makers and local considerations and often must rely on federal or state funding for computers and internet access. Because adults and, to a lesser degree minors, have First Amendment rights, libraries and schools that choose to use content filters should implement policies and procedures that mitigate the negative effects of filtering to the greatest extent possible. The process should encourage and allow users to ask for filtered websites and content to be unblocked, with minimal delay and due respect for user privacy.”

None of this is untrue, and I agree with all of it: Internet Filtering is a joke, a crime against the freedom of information access, a risk to privacy of the reading experience, and simply doesn’t work. However, the current opportunities from the eRate program are…well, if not once-in-a-lifetime, they are pretty close. The FCC is trying very hard to incentivize the construction of fiber to every library. All of them. eRate will pay for between 10-80% of the construction costs for fiber to the library, including things like huge fiber runs into rural areas and the hubs and switches necessary to make it work inside the building. And in places where the State has a matching program, the FCC + State match can pay for 100% of the costs.

This is like the Rural Electrification Act, except for the next-gen connectivity that will be needed by communities over the next decade. In rural areas, getting fiber anywhere is nearly impossible…it isn’t worth the infrastructure costs for providers to run the fiber. But if someone else is paying to run it, and it runs to a conveniently located place in a community like a library, the most expensive part of the work is done. This will enable communities to be connected that could never be previously. The FCC staffer was talking about future-proofing this construction by aiming for 10 Gbps connections to these libraries…a sort of super connectivity. This is important, potentially transformative stuff for communities and libraries.

So what are the difficulties? The first is the aformentioned CIPA rules about filtering…which some libraries are happily complying with now. Note that the rules for CIPA don’t say that you have to filter! They just say that you must “install technology measures”, have a policy in place, and hold a meeting with you constituents about said policy. It is possible to comply with the rules for CIPA at a very low level…blacklisting pornographic sites via DNS filtering on computers in your children’s area, for example. I believe it is possible to meet the letter of the law, not impede access to information, and use eRate funds to increase connectivity in areas that badly need it.

After talking at length to an FCC staffer about this program, I do honestly believe that connectivity is their goal. They aren’t out hunting for libraries that “fail” some CIPA test. If we can find a way to meet the minimum requirements for CIPA and not compromise our information ethics, we should do so.

The second difficulty in eRate funding is the application process itself. It is…non-trivial. In this case, I think we need to find models that libraries can follow, and that consortia need to focus on offering eRate application as a service to their member libraries.


The Aspen Institute will be producing a report from our discussions, with recommendations for libraries. The Knight Foundation produced a nice summary of our work on their blog, and I’m sure that more will trickle out as other participants write up their thoughts. I’m interested in working in the areas I know of rural America to try and use the new FCC eRate push to try and get more communities connected, and I’m very interested to continue these conversations over the next year.

2 thoughts on “Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation

  1. Cool post, and a TON of good content here – thanks for sharing! I’m going to push back on a side issue in the post – that of filtering. You said this: “Internet Filtering is a joke, a crime against the freedom of information access, a risk to privacy of the reading experience, and simply doesn’t work.”

    Especially the “simply doesn’t work” part. Really? I’ll disagree with you there. It certainly depends on your filter, but … it’s working just fine in Topeka. We do a really low level of filtering, which is basically just porn and malware.

    And it works. We don’t have problems with customers getting kicked out of the library because of porn, customers ask for sites to be unblocked (and we do), and we don’t hear complaints (from customers complaining about other customer screens, or from us blocking sites that shouldn’t be blocked).

    Does it work for everybody? No, probably not. Do we hear from everyone when a site is unjustly blocked? No, probably not. Is it working for the great majority of our customers? Yes, it is.

    I know – not a very “librarianish” answer from me. But it’s a reality in Topeka.

    1. Hey David! 🙂 You probably know all of my concerns here, but MOSTLY they fall under the general idea that filters do two things really badly: they block some (but not all) of what they should…I’m certain that if someone wanted they could find porn via your computers. And the false positive blocking is more likely to effect the most likely to need unrestricted access and don’t _at all_ feel comfortable asking an authority figure to unblock a site…the LGBTQ teen, for example.

      It’s the latter that I worry the most about, because the damage there is invisible. The false positives are terribly hard to track, and obviously you know that not hearing about them isn’t evidence that it isn’t happening.

      I also have security-level concerns about filters that man-in-the-middle SSL, since as the web moves more and more to encrypted traffic, traditional filtering tech doesn’t work without introducing MASSIVE security holes into the browsing habits of your patrons.

      But honestly, I’m sure that your library is doing it as well as it could possibly be done, which is to say in a way that minimizes harm and maximizes the experience of your patrons. I am trying to get across that there are ways to do this that don’t suck. I’m sure you’re an example of that. 🙂

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