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Public Libraries in an Open, Smart City

One of the ideas that came out of the dialogue and debate around Sidewalk Toronto was that the Toronto Public Library could be the home of a civic data trust – an independent entity that would act as the steward and guardian of the smart city’s data, regulate its collection and use, and ensure public ownership, access, and control.

The merits of this proposal aside, it led me to wonder: what other roles could our public libraries play in the open and smart cities of the future?

Today in many library systems, you can visit certain branches and get free or low-cost access to technology tools like 3D printers, audiovisual equipment, and digital media editing software, as well as training and support from library staff on how to use them. How could this model of open and equitable access be expanded beyond specific technologies, and applied to a broader lens of helping residents actively and fully participate in civic and democratic life in a smart city?

I would love to see a smart city with the library at its literal and figurative core. It would be appropriately staffed, resourced, and given the explicit mandate to help residents increase their civic and digital literacy; engage them in more accessible, transparent, and equitable opportunities to participate in decision-making; and empower them with the means and methods to contribute to collective problem-solving.

This means that in addition to recommending a book for your child, helping you with your research project or job search, or lending out a musical instrument or a wifi hotspot, your friendly neighbourhood librarian could also help you understand how and when to influence your city’s strategic plan, introduce you to the urban planner in charge of the new development on your block, and collect your proposal for this year’s participatory budgeting process. They could request new or updated open data from other municipal departments on your behalf, lend you the equipment you need to measure air quality data around your school, and administer micro-grants for community-led initiatives or innovative solutions to local issues. If you have a problem, an idea, and a desire to help make your community a better place, the library is there to connect you, support you, and show you the way.

There currently exists a sizeable gap between residents and their (real and perceived) ability to influence their city’s decision-making process and contribute ideas and solutions to solving collective problems. Smart cities and their accompanying technologies can diminish or exacerbate that gap even further. It all comes down to whether or not we believe that residents should play a prominent and central role in how our future smart cities are designed, governed, and run. And if we believe in people over technology, then libraries are one of the public institutions best positioned to help us get there.

Public libraries have long been a trusted community-based institution with a history that combines a mission of enabling learning, discovery, and creativity with the values of ensuring open, accessible, and equitable opportunities to participate in civic life. It is more important than ever for libraries to help residents become more digitally literate, access the full spectrum of civic engagement and participation, and use technology and data to make better informed decisions and solve problems for the public good.