Posted by & filed under Opinons, Tech.

The following tweet yesterday fired off a lightbulb of sorts:

suelyn @doctorow Will digital publishing be the end of bricks & mortar libraries.

Let me put that in context. My buddy, Dave Winer, has been on a long time quest to find, foster, create, or instigate some way for there to be a long-lasting, secure, independent archive of our lifes’ digital works. Dave has a huge body of mostly-digital creations, but he’s also interested in providing a repository for his dad’s blog, photos, his uncle’s writings, family memorabilia, etc. It’s something everyone needs, from the simplest of bloggers to the most well-read A-List journalist — some place where your stuff can be read 100, 300, or a thousand years from now, without fear of being censored by a government, neglected by a corporation, or abused by cyber-viginantes.

Lots of the focus has centered on long-lived institutions like the Library of Congress or colleges and universities. But the tweet made me think of an equally long-lived set of institutions that are fundamentally aligned with the interests of a free and open society — local public libraries.

The local library exists because it is important to the community. They serve as focal points for community activities, with events and programs for toddlers, kids, and adults alike. Meeting rooms, multimedia, and computer labs all make up a part of the 21st century public library. Unfortunately, the writing is on the wall regarding their most fundamental service, lending physical books to their patrons.

In the absence of a compelling follow-on mission, some could be prompted to make a tweet such as the one above. Once we all have Kindles, who needs the library? Here’s the lightbulb.

There are literally thousands of public libraries in the US today (122,101 according to the American Library Association), and most are well-conneted to the Internet and have modern computing facilities for use by staff and patrons. And there are easily that many again scattered around the rest of the planet. A quarter of a million sites for information storage is a pretty compelling bit of redundancy! So, why not leverage a few simple technologies and create the long-lived, public digital archive that piggy-backs on the public library mission?

Imagine a large, distributed, redundant file system (there are lots to choose from) with a well-connected peer to peer application suite that archives, shares, replicates, and serves digital content across the planet. A botnet of sorts for our digital masterpieces. Each library only has to commit a relatively small amount of CPU, network, and data storage (probably just one dedicated PC with a few terabytes of storage) and we suddenly have petabytes of redundant digital archive that could last as long as our respective societies place a value on free access to information.

The implementation is left for another post, but the idea is certainly compelling. Librarians have shown themselves to be paragons when it comes to their mission of adopting and adapting information technology in a manner that serves the public. Let’s figure out how to give them their next mission and build the tools for them to do it!