I see a National Public Library Corporation as an outstanding addition to our public information system, a partner to deliver the personalization and embodiment that PBS and NPR cannot. This vision is realized in A History of the World in 100 Objects by the British Museum and BBC.
I’m travelling back in time, and across the globe, to see how we humans over 2 million years have shaped our world and been shaped by it, and I’m going to tell this story exclusively through the things that humans have made: all sorts of things, carefully designed, and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away.
The podcasts led me to the website, an engaging place for learning, enjoyment and connection. Each page has rich content and gateways to other points in history, locations throughout the UK where artifacts originated, to the British Museum and other people who are extending and enjoying the collection. Superb integration of the past and present, physical and virtual, central and local are among its many achievements.1 Indeed, I began my exploration with ancient relics and followed my interests seamlessly to local news and things to do in Hereford and Worcester. It was an engaging journey to a specific part of the world I’d never heard of before.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is extremely well conceived and executed and I cannot think of anything this comprehensive, cohesive and uniformly high qualilty in the U.S. Perhaps that’s because an undertaking of this scope is beyond the reach of any individual cultural or public institution. Would it be out of reach as a collaborative effort between strong partners?
What could libraries contribute to projects like this one? Is there managerial or research talent in the library community? Does the profession have people that can help make connections between knowledge areas? And what about the local aspect? Every community in America has history and talent waiting to be shared. Could our public libraries be good locations to help bring the local richness forward and the distant richness back to their communities in highly personalized and contextualized ways?
This sense of higher purpose, collaboration, excellence and richness is my vision … and I know it’s possible to do great things. We have the talent. We also have the financial resources, among the billions spent annually2 to operate our public and cultural institutions, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations they receive each year. What we don’t have is a calling to high standards, a shared sense of purpose and a spirit of collaboration. American instincts sometimes predispose us to settle for less through independent efforts than we could achieve by working together. Take a look at our public schools and libraries to see what I mean.
Let’s stop settling for less. Creation of an NPL with the right leadership would be a bold step in the right direction.
1The project is a veritable primer on how to use digital technologies. I’ll review it from that angle tomorrow.
2The IMLS report, Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2007, indicates total public library operating revenue of $11 billion per year.