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Libraries Need to Lead the Sharing Economy

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One of my first experiences with the Sharing Economy was in elementary school. I needed a drill and some bits for a dollhouse I was putting together. When I asked my dad for a drill, he proudly announced that it was time I experienced the Berkeley Tool Lending Library. I flashed them my library card and I was out the door, ready to conquer this dollhouse with my new (to me) shared drill.

The Sharing Economy is a hot topic right now. Everybody – from San Francisco's mayor to nonprofit leaders to venture capitalists – is talking about it. But for library lovers, the Sharing Economy is nothing new: libraries have been sharing information, media, and yes, tools, for centuries. So why isn't the private sector looking to libraries as successful models in the Sharing Economy? Libraries not only have the opportunity to lead the sharing economy, but also to stand as an alternative to the private sector's version of sharing.  

Library Sharing Versus the Sharing Economy

My TechSoup colleague Lewis Haidt defines the sharing economy as "the use of networked, often mobile, information technology to share goods and services." This is certainly a definition that fits most libraries, but the difference between library sharing versus the Sharing Economy (yes, with capital letters) is monetization. Companies that fall under the Sharing Economy umbrella charge money for shared services and products. For example, if I want to rent a car from City Car Share or stay in a house in Santa Cruz via AirBnB, I need to pay for those services.

But beyond monetization, there's the issue of inclusivity. The private sector's version of sharing is not open to everybody. If I don't have the means to pay for these shared assets, I can't use them. At the library, however, anybody can walk in and use a computer or check out a DVD (that is, if they don't have exponentially high overdue fees).

The parallel between the Sharing Economy and libraries has been noted before. Way back in 2012, the San Francisco city planning nonprofit SPUR published a paper called "A Policy Agenda for the Sharing Economy." The paper traces the evolution of the Sharing Economy (primarily in the Bay Area) and examines how policy might help facilitate its growth. It lists a few existing sharing infrastructures already in place:    

"Local governments can build on the backbone of the great sharing service they already provide – libraries – by expanding them to related uses such as tool libraries."

It makes perfect sense, of course. Libraries already have policies and infrastructures in place to support sharing. Some of library sharing is supported by mobile technology, as well, such as the ability to place a hold on a book from your phone or checking out an e-book on Overdrive.

Share the Conversation

Over on the TechSoup blog, we've been exploring how nonprofits and social good fit into the Sharing Economy as well as some of the drawbacks, as my colleague Becky Wiegand points out.  In that coverage, we've noticed both an opportunity for nonprofits and libraries to lead the conversation, but also some exclusion as well. But if libraries aren't invited to the discussion, how can they lead it?  At the risk of sounding a bit aggressive, we need to, ahem, force them to share the conversation with libraries. Here are a few ideas:

  • Invite sharing-minded people from your community to the library. To get a tool sharing program started, the Paonia Library (in CO) invited members of the community with an interest in the Sharing Economy. The North Fork Scrapbook blog wrote up a nice piece about how tool libraries have foundations in the Sharing Economy.  
  • Write about your library's programming in the context of the Sharing Economy. There needs to be more mainstream coverage of libraries as examples of sharing economy models in both library and non-library press. Occasionally, there will be a blip about Little Free Libraries or Seed libraries, but we need bigger picture coverage. 
  • Show up to Sharing Economy conferences as an attendee or ask to be a speaker. A few TechSoup staff members attended the SHARE conference in San Francisco. While there was a small nonprofit presence, there were no speakers associated with libraries.

Establishing presence in the Sharing Economy is vital for future funding and support for public libraries. The National Journal writes "Libraries are especially apt to increase their relevance in the coming years, considering the rise of the 'sharing economy,' a concept arguably invented by the first libraries."  

The greater public needs to be aware of various sharing services libraries provide. The private sector invested in the Sharing Economy should also learn from libraries as successful models. But none of that is going to happen until libraries establish themselves as leaders in the space.   

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