Presidential candidates: Local economies in the digital age deserve attention

A question for candidates: What can you do now and as President to bolster the ability of libraries to bolster communities in the digital age?

The United States is a large and complex nation with many interests—from the Internet and innovation to immigration and Iran. But at the core, the nation’s strategic advantage is built on strong local communities and economies. That’s not a great revelation, but it’s not apparent thus far in the presidential campaign.

Strength at the local level depends on strong community anchor institutions. These include libraries, boys and girls clubs, hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, religious organizations, and civic groups, all of which are even more important now as the nation undergoes foundational change resulting from the digital revolution.

Fundamental changes in local economies

This locally-anchored story runs much deeper than recovery from a cyclical economic downturn. Local economies and communities are in the midst of fundamental change. Our long ago agrarian society, displaced by the industrial society, is now morphing into today’s digital society.

For example, the rise of the sharing economy—exemplified by Uber and Airbnb—is now embraced by a whole cadre of entrepreneurs. Operating in established market sectors, these upstarts’ business models are based largely on organizational capital made possible by widespread digital technology. The companies do not directly own or control the physical assets or provide the end-user services.

“Community” as we knew it is breaking down—or at least changing radically. While the rise of virtual communities enables new connections across geographical space, it also detracts from the cultivation of local physical communities. But there’s more than that. Prominent social scientist Robert Putnam studies this phenomenon. Should we be satisfied with a Bowling Alone society?

We are also witnessing a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, as described in the Social Mobility Memos of the Brookings Institution. In his latest book, Our Kids, Putnam describes a particular kind of breaking down in communities as children have become much more segregated by socio-economic class than in previous generations. Kids from wealthy families go to different schools, their own set of extra-curricular activities, and interact much less frequently with kids from other backgrounds. Absent intervention, the trend portends a growing gap among us, fracturing our communities.

Community anchor institutions and strong communities

While many of these developments have their roots in national-level policies and are impacted by global trends, their effects are seen locally. To address the challenges and meet the opportunities of the digital society, response is needed at the macro and local level. What mechanisms exist locally to respond to these developments?

Look to community anchor institutions as the front-line responders. How can we best position these formidable assets (e.g., there are 120,000 libraries in the United States) to bear on the challenge of fundamental changes in the economy and society? And we should be asking the presidential candidates, 'What can you do now and as President to bolster the ability of these institutions to bolster communities in the digital age?'

Libraries: The quintessential community organization in the digital age

Libraries are now digitally-enabled community spaces with an array of technology training and resources.

America’s libraries are well positioned to strengthen communities, serving everyone in the broadest imaginable range of activity. Libraries help people with employment, education, entrepreneurship, empowerment, and engagement in the community—The E’s of Libraries®—all in a non-partisan, unbiased way. Libraries truly serve everyone, whether age 3 or 93, and reach out to every kind of specialized population, whether based on ethnicity, income level, disability, veteran status, or otherwise.

Creation spaces—maker labs replete with 3D technology and other digital tools such as computerized numerical control (CNC) routers and laser cutters, video studios, publishing centers and the like—are rapidly proliferating in libraries. These spaces promote innovation and creativity—advancing science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) learning for youth and adults alike. Entrepreneurs use these spaces for prototype development, and other library resources for marketing research and business planning.

Libraries exemplify the spirit and reality of the sharing economy—the shift from direct ownership to more cost-effective and efficient, common use of resources. Libraries are great co-working spaces, providing Internet access and a plethora of other resources. Libraries open doors, create opportunity, and encourage economic and intellectual growth.

Libraries are the quintessential smart hubs in communities for people and information—and now with technology too. Long-standing library activities include book groups, author talks, children’s story hours, summer reading (and learning) programs, and classes of every sort. Libraries are now digitally-enabled community spaces with an array of technology training and resources.

Going forward, more attention and investment should be paid to America’s communities—the foundation for our ability to compete in the global economy. Fostering the health of our communities should be a focus of anyone running for the presidency.

Libraries offer a hand up, not a handout

Libraries, as well as other community anchor institutions, are best positioned to effect positive change towards an economy for the future that works for everyone. Libraries transform communities by offering a hand up, not a handout. Libraries work… let’s put them to work even more in strengthening our communities in the next presidential administration. Libraries have the potential to advance the missions of every cabinet department and independent agency.

Alan S. Inouye leads technology policy for the American Library Association. Previously, he coordinated the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President, and directed information technology policy studies at the National Academy of Sciences. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.

By Alan Inouye.