The Internet of Things poses a future where the types of intelligence now stored in our computers and hand-held devices will be networked amongst objects; where the things of our daily lives communicate with one another with little to no human intervention. We can readily see the benefits of this type of programmable world, from being able to adjust the lighting and temperature of a home remotely; to texts sent automatically upon one’s arrival to, or departure from, a location; to having coffee prepared to order as a network senses the customer’s approach; to larger purposes, including greater automation in factory production and more efficient and flexible traffic engineering. Criticisms of this type of expansive object to object networking have primarily been based around privacy and security issues, but are there other risks? What do we loose when we automate the small quotidian interactions such as ordering a coffee, or making the effort to send a personal text–a form of communication already considered to be impersonal? Do we really need to have so much automation over every aspect of our daily life?
Directly interacting with our environment helps us to stay connected with it, it is a reminder of our impact on, and relationship to, the world. To go for a run outside is a distinctly different experience from running on a treadmill in the gym, both physically and mentally; composting food scraps rather than just throwing them in the trash makes us aware how much we consume and how much we waste, as well as of the potential usefulness of what was once considered just trash; and even the briefest interaction between people has been found to have positive impact.
Connecting information to things clearly has use and production value, but connecting people with things, and other people, is also of value. Over the past year I’ve come across several reports about the things libraries loan. Things like fishing poles at the Honeoye Public Library located in the Finger Lakes region in New York; telescopes at the Ann Arbor District Library; household tools at the Grosse Point Public Library; and American Girl Dolls at the Ottendorfer Branch of the New York Public Library.
In addition to things, many libraries are “loaning” animals and people. Students at Yale University can check out a therapy dog for a circulation period of 30 minutes to help alleviate personal and academic stresses. “Human Library”programs allow patrons to have one on one conversation with people who have unique life experiences and/or specialized skills. Libraries that lend “Human Books” work to introduce patrons to alternative perspectives and knowledge in an effort to increase understanding. And libraries have long served as venues for education and outreach programming, connecting patrons with services as wide-ranging as employment counseling, to fitness and crafts classes, to hog butchering demonstrations.
We know that providing computers and Internet access is an invaluable service provided by public libraries, and that libraries are serving more and more often as hubs for tech education and innovation. But budgetary cutbacks and difficulties in creating viable arrangements with publishers for acquiring and lending eBooks and journals can impede a library’s ability to keep up with rapid advancements in technology and its related equipment. As Libraries struggle to find and maintain their place in an increasingly hi-tech digital world, programs outside of the realm of technology can offer innovative ways to provide valuable services to, and connection with, patrons. Lending out “things” and creating community focused programming are ways to maintain relevance and serve the community while operating with a restricted budget.
And we cannot underestimate the value of offering services that connect people with things, and people with people. The Pew Internet & American Life Project report “From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers: A typology of public library engagement in America” from March 13, 2014, found that persons who are less engaged with their public library are often less engaged with their community generally. The report describes this group of people as having “lower levels of technology use, fewer ties to their neighbors, lower feelings of personal efficacy, and less engagement with other cultural activities.” This clearly identifies a group of people who could be well served by a library that offers unique services and programming such as the loaning of tools, service dogs, and human books, which are potential ways to encourage isolated people to engage with their community.
The primary mission of a library is to offer access to information, and we are well aware that information doesn’t come only in the form of electronic and/or printed words. Libraries additionally have a mission to connect patrons with their community. By providing access to things and to networks of people, libraries are offering access to knowledge and experience. Libraries serve a vital role within their communities and must seek to keep their community “connected” in the broadest possible sense.