"That's Why We Had Libraries"

For one week each October, Chicago Ideas Week (CIW) brings together some of the world's most outstanding speakers to present their ideas and inspire the innovations of tomorrow at 80+ sessions across the city of Chicago. CIW aims to be the platform for sharing big ideas and making big things happen.

“That’s why we had libraries.”

Had. Past tense. Really? Well, that was part of the conversation during Chicago Ideas Week’s “The Sharing Economy: What’s Mine is Yours,” featuring Hollie Belton, founder of Books on the Underground (and spin-offs Books on the Metro, Books on the Subway, and most recently Books on the L); Jay Savsani, founder of Meal Sharing; and Steve Jones, Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois Chicago.

So, why are libraries in the past tense just as the sharing economy is taking off? According to sharing economy innovators during the CIW session, what separates the new sharing economy from traditional sharing models like libraries is the way that technology has facilitated deeper personal connections through sharing. Technology makes the sharing easier, of course, by facilitating easier connection across those interested in sharing. It also allows more people to share, from wherever they are and whenever they are available. And technology provides the platform for participants to share feedback and reviews that build community, trust, and authenticity. Throughout all of this, the sharing becomes less about the shared items (sleeping rooms, cars, meals, books, etc.) and more about the opportunity to experience and interact with new and different people in new and different ways. As one panelist put it, the sharing economy offers a chance to “connect with people, experience cultures, and expand knowledge.”

It all still sounds a lot like libraries - we've been helping people connect, experience cultures, and expand knowledge from the start. We may be careful to integrate personal information into sharing exchanges, but libraries are finding new ways to balance that with our important commitment to privacy and confidentiality.

So even as the new sharers think they’re so different from the original sharers (and that may be a reminder of the need to build awareness in order to assert our place in this movement), there are opportunities for us to learn from the sharing economy’s development.

Of particular interest were the panelists’ thoughts on barriers that may keep the sharing economy from growing beyond urban and younger populations.

The risk of sharing with strangers and the perceived inconvenience of sharing are among the primary concerns that keep people from participating in the sharing economy. Libraries and librarians benefit from reputations as trustworthy community institutions, but still contend with the challenge of sharing in a world that increasingly expects demand to be met by immediate availability. Libraries working with communities to develop new programs and services may fair best, as they strive to stay on top of new interests and build relationships across the spectrum of users. The new sharing initiatives hope to overcome these barriers by engaging more people as users, making their platforms easier to use and more intuitive, and collecting and promoting positive reviews and endorsements to reassure new users. These all sound like strategies that libraries are doing and will continue to do to maintain our part of the sharing economy.

Deeper cultural and generational traits like pro-consumerism, joy in ownership, and the status achieved through ownership were cited as even greater barriers to participation in the sharing economy. For libraries, we may know something of the reverse of this, having experienced library support even among non-users who still see the value of library services to the community. But we know that this may not last forever. With competing services and limited budgets, non-users can only support the good of the library for so long. Whether through digital content, maker spaces, business services, or community-focused programs, libraries are increasingly finding new ways to convert non-users into library users and supporters. We’ll also have to keep an eye on the new sharing economy initiatives to find out how they infuse senses of ownership and status into their sharing models.

If you'd like to learn more about Chicago Ideas Week and their programming, consider following them on Twitter (@chicagoideas or #CIW) or check out some of their videos from previous events