Libraries: The New Commons

For the past several months, I’ve been involved with the New Commons Project at the University of Maine at Farmington. It’s a fascinating effort, as they’ve asked people across the state, “What cultural works are of most value to us today?” The answers have ranged all over the place, from pop music to Dr. Seuss, graffiti artists to Jane Austen. Once the finalists are selected (to be announced tomorrow!), we will be looking at each work, one month at a time. 24 works will be selected in total.

Yesterday was the big kick off lecture for the series. Lewis Hyde, a well-known “cultural critic with a particular interest in the public life of the imagination,” came to talk to our campus about the idea of a commons: a body of work that society can draw from collectively. It was a fascinating talk, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the sort of programming that comes out of the final selections. (Being on the selection committee, perhaps I’m biased, but I think we’re in for some really awesome months.)

But as I was listening to his talk, and to the discussion that followed over how copyright influences a commons, and what should be done to make sure things are as accessible as possible, I couldn’t help think about the root idea of a commons. It’s a term for the traditional idea of English common land that could be used by the entire town for any number of reasons. I love the idea of a cultural commons, but the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that the only reason such a cultural commons could exist is due (today) to two main things: the internet, and libraries.

The internet is obvious. So much of what we do these days relies on our connection to the cloud. Whether we’re streaming movies on Netflix, reading articles on CNN, or checking out the latest social media posts on Facebook, the internet has come to dominate our lives. If this were a few decades ago, I would be arguing public television was the commons of the day. It was ubiquitous, freely available, and connected us in a unique way. Years before that, it was the radio. But culture moves onward, and the audience for television is too splintered these days for me to really feel like it’s that “commons” for now. A friend was asking on Facebook for television show recommendations a few days ago, and I couldn’t just rattle off shows I liked. I wanted to first know what streaming platforms she had access to. What’s the point of recommending something you can’t watch?

Which is where libraries come in, naturally. And actually, libraries also make it possible for the internet to be a real commons. It’s too easy for people with good access to the internet to take it for granted, but speaking as someone who lives in an area of the country where high internet speeds aren’t always easy to come by, I can definitely say that having a library with free, high speed internet is vital to ensuring everyone has access to the internet. And libraries do more than that. They compile works and make them publicly available. They pay for content so you don’t have to.

Professor Hyde wondered aloud at some of the candidates for the New Commons, questioning how copyright might make access to those works really possible. And it’s true that some of them might be very tricky. But speaking as the Library Director here on campus, I can also say we will be right there waiting to make sure people have access to whatever they want to view, read, or listen to, whenever they want to.

It was a day it was easy to be proud to be a librarian.

If you’re local to the state, keep an eye out for the announcement tomorrow of what’s been selected as the first 12 entries. I can’t wait to see what you think.


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