Public libraries are in a tough spot. They have to compete with Netflix, Instagram, and Fortnite for the attention of young people. Increasingly, their funding is threatened by austere governments. And on top of that, a vocal school of skeptics would like to turn this pubic infrastructure to private hands.
In response, librarians have begun to think outside the box. At the Next Library Conference, which concluded last week in Berlin, hundreds of librarians from across Europe and the world came together to tackle these challenges. They spent four days talking about new services and technologies that can bring the public library into the 21st century. The event hosted VR installations, poetry slams, keynote speeches, and… a Portal.
Portals, designed by Shared_Studios, are immersive AV environments distributed all over the world. When you enter one, you come face to face with someone in a distant Portal, live and fully body, as though you are in the same room.
Each Portal is part of an international network that stretches from Rwanda to Stockholm to Mexico, which means from one Portal you can have curated conversations with communities around the world. And because each Portal is curated by a local resident who works to connect the Portal to their community, going to the Portal is a lot like going to the library.
Once, you would ask your librarian to point you towards the right book for you. Now, libraries that host Portals can offer the same service — but for connections, experiences, and people around the world.
If you want to learn about rap music in Afghanistan, your local Portal Curator can connect you to musicians there. If you’d like to talk about strengthening democratic institutions in the United States, the Portal Curators in America will find people suited to that conversation. Or if you’d just like to have a conversation with someone in Australia, or someone in Iraq, or someone in Myanmar, the global Portals network can make that happen.
Librarians don’t just sort books. They connect communities to ideas; spur a love of knowledge; and help citizens expand their horizons. They do the things that keep societies together.
The good news is that this technology can revitalize the modern public library and help librarians provide these core social goods. As communication technology reshapes our relationship to the world, and as cultural literacy becomes increasingly crucial, Portals offer an opportunity to rethink our libraries, our infrastructure, and our education.
Without embracing new technology and intercultural communication, libraries won’t survive. But we need them to thrive. We need freely accessible public spaces around which communities can gather, cohere, and organize. We need public infrastructure that supports all — not merely those who can pay for it. We need institutions that work to connect us across distance and across difference.