February 2016 | Volume XXXIV, Issue 1 »

Sharing + Technology = Experience

January 25, 2016
Miguel Figueroa, American Library Association

Excerpted from remarks made at the Better Together: Libraries in the Sharing Economy preconference on October 21, 2015, as part of the Libraries Illinois conference in Peoria

Libraries were sharing before sharing was cool. But in this age of change, we might need to rethink our sharing in order to stay cool. I recently listened to a panel of innovators discussing the current state of the sharing economy and the needs it meets. One of them said, “That’s why we had libraries.” Had. Past tense.

We’ll get back to that. But first, what is the sharing economy? The People Who Share, an advocacy group that advances the idea of sharing and works to expand the sharing economy, defines it this way:

The Sharing Economy is a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human and physical resources. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations.

I like this definition because it acknowledges both the social and the economic aspects of the sharing economy. It acknowledges that we share things, but we also share our own human resources. And it considers a range of things that can be shared—creation, production, distribution, trade, consumption.

What’s driving the sharing economy? Technology and social media, which most of us probably already knew. Technology helps form networks of people and organizations that can engage in direct exchange. Particularly important are mobile phones, the data that they produce and transmit, and social media platforms that facilitate engagement.

A lot of this really picked up during the financial downturn in 2007-2008. And it also coincides with a trend toward sustainability, resilience, and even small living. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated the five largest sectors of the sharing economy to be worth $15 billion with potential growth to $335 billion by 2025.

There are a lot of models under this sharing economy umbrella. What was originally a term for encouraging interaction and sharing among neighbors, has morphed into a broad system of community-driven and corporate-driven sharing. Goods and services are traded (more often sold) on the basis of access rather than ownership, renting things temporarily rather than selling them permanently. Think Uber or Airbnb.

The collaborative economy emphasizes decentralized networks and marketplaces that bypass traditional middlemen. I don’t need a manufacturer to bring something to market. I don’t need a bank loan to fund an idea. The people who need can find the people who have and negotiate relationships between themselves. Think of Etsy, but also something like Kickstarter. And then we have the peer economy, which emphasizes direct transactions between individuals, without a third party, a company, or a business as a mediator. Some would say Uber and Airbnb follow this model. Others might point to Craigslist, Yerdle, or Open Source Software.

And then there’s collaborative consumption. This is closer to that original vision—renting, lending, swapping, sharing, bartering, gifting—made easier by technology. This might be where we start to see programs like ZipCar or bike shares, or freecycle.

Past—and Future—Tense

That’s why we had libraries? As I continued to listen to these sharing economy innovators, it became clear that they think what they are doing is fundamentally different from traditional sharing. They do see libraries as an older, past-tense form of sharing. Their reasoning makes some sense. Sharing is just part of their equation. They view their work as sharing plus technology to create an experience. That experience could be a social experience. It could be a convenience experience. It could be a savings experience. But they emphasize the experience of it.

An article in The New York Times, “These Public Libraries Are for Snowshoes and Ukeleles,” was a great promo for the work that we are doing and for the changing nature of our collections and of our sharing. “Libraries, arguably the original sharing economy, have long circulated art prints, music and movies, and more recently have added tools. But services like the Library of Things in Sacramento and the “Stuff-brary” in Mesa, outside Phoenix, are part of a broad cultural shift in which libraries increasingly view themselves as hands-on creative hubs, places where people can learn new crafts and experiment with technology like 3-D printers.”

Will sharing more things make us a more real part of the sharing economy? The story, for me, was still too much about the things. The article did talk a bit about experience. A woman who was able to connect with her grandkids because of the WiFi-lending spot from the New York Public Library. A woman who rediscovered sewing. But it was still primarily about things. And the experiences were personal, in nature.

Another recent news story dealt with sharing books, “Chicago’s Newest Library Is on a Train.” If you find a book on a train, you can read it as long as you ride. Not a great lending period, but points for browsing and serendipity. The instructions for “Books on the L” are simple: “If you find a book, tweet about it, post on Facebook and share on Instagram. Just make sure to use the hashtag #BooksOnTheL.” You are getting a personal experience—the serendipity of finding and enjoying a book—but you are also creating a public experience by sharing that on a larger platform. The key innovation might be the hashtag—it’s not just about sharing, it’s about sharing plus technology to create experience.

Let’s also consider BookoftheMonthClub.com. It’s a subscription service, but I think it’s pulling together some of these ideas.

  • A platform with recommended books.
  • A very nice, personalized delivery (that gets tweeted and instagramed quite frequently).
  • And then a nice platform to build shared experience.

Sharing and Privacy

I know that part of this tension with the new sharing economy is a conflict between our professional values and some of the drivers of the new sharing economy. We believe in intellectual freedom and privacy. And that can be in conflict with some of the data-driven algorithms that drive a lot of sharing and even with the social media sharing that creates some of the experience.

In order for us to really enhance the sharing, we need people to share the fact that they are sharing. We need them to let us use at least some of that info to make their experience better, to reuse it to drive recommendations and suggestions and to better understand the network of sharing. We also need for them to share info with others so that they can connect with other community members around what they are sharing/borrowing.

And while we stand firm with our principles, it’s important to note that our users may have slightly different ideas. In a 2014 Pew study on public perceptions of privacy and security, things that people consider very sensitive include social security numbers, health information, phone conversations, and e-mail messages. Low on the list are the media you like and basic purchasing habits. This is not to say that we should not respect people’s privacy or intellectual freedom. But it might be an encouragement to offer some users the opportunity to easily share information that would advance their experience or change their relationship to their community.

We all know that libraries were sharing before sharing was cool. But the way that sharing is cool, now, has changed. It’s different from just a sharing of things. It’s a sharing of things and services, through technology, to create an experience.

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