Libraries. A time honored monument to our desire to preserve our past and share our stories. Since people first began setting down their stories on paper, the idea of a library as both a physical place and an institution has been central to how we organize society. The details change over time, but the purpose remains the same: store and make available to the public the knowledge and stories of the past and present.

Some years ago, as the Internet worked its way into our daily lives, there was an undercurrent of fear that the usefulness of libraries might have begun to wane. The information they stored in vast stacks of books could be digitized and presented in the palm of your hand. The questions that could absorb hours of scouring books were answered in moments with a Google search.

Thankfully we know that the Internet won’t directly be replacing libraries any time soon. What the Internet revolution taught us about libraries is that the institution still serves many vital purposes in their communities. From a place to go for a new novel, to a central locale for research, libraries evolved into a hub for information, web access, and a dedicated ‘maker-space’ for do-it-yourself minded people.

Sounds like a place perfect for self-publishing, doesn’t it?

Yet self-publishing and libraries have been slow to connect in many of the ways you would expect. Happily, we can observe that trend changing, as more libraries around the world are finding ways to incorporate self-publishing. The movement to promote community involvement and foster a creative world is one shared by both libraries and self-publishers; this connection alone is reason enough to recognize the need for libraries to embrace self-publishing.

Technology

Self-publishing at its core is built around technology. We often have to correct people by explaining that Lulu is not actually a publishing company; we’re a technology company. What we offer in terms of technology allows individuals to become publishers, and independent publishing companies to access print on demand and global distribution. But Lulu itself is a company based on technology.

That same technology enables libraries to provide self-publishing tools to their patrons easily and with wide ranging access. Libraries have already undergone the shift from solely providing access to books, to a hub for all kinds of information, often taking the form of digital search and retrieval. The advances in technology coupled with the shifting trends in publishing put libraries at a sort of cross roads. Self-publishing is taking over the publishing industry, and libraries are tasked with finding ways to incorporate self-publishing and self-published books.

Earlier this year, Kathryn Conrad published a paper through University of Arizona Press titled “Public Libraries as Publishers: Critical Opportunity.” In this piece, she examines the long and intertwined history of libraries and publishing, with a particular focus on the ways libraries can adjust to the surge in self-publishing. She argues that “[p]ublic libraries should invest in community-based self-publishing programs to engage local communities, to reach under-served populations, and to fulfill their mission as an archive of and for a community.”

In her statement, Conrad identifies a three-pronged approach to library’s role and continues in her work to emphasize how self-publishing can be integrated with libraries and assist in achieving the goals she identifies. Technology is not the sole driver of the changes in both publishing and libraries. Both of these institutions have dynamic and crucial roles in society, and finding the points of overlap will help both remain relevant and meaningful for years to come.

In an effort to better understand the role libraries play and how self-publishing is part of fulfilling that role, we’ll spend some time today breaking down the three points Conrad raises in light of the historical value and importance of libraries.

History

Perhaps the most widely recognized library in history is Egypt’s Library of Alexandria. This historic library engaged in publishing activities from its earliest days. Texts were all hand written then, and the materials would deteriorate over time, forcing the librarians to reproduce the books to ensure the content’s survival. I’m sure these diligent individuals didn’t think of themselves as publishers, but they were publishing all the same.

Up through the ages, countless examples of libraries publishing can be found, from the New York Public Library Desk Reference to small libraries publishing catalogs and book lists for their patron’s convenience. These examples all share a common thread: they seek to increase the ease with which community members can find and access the library collection. Facilitating access to content, either knowledge based or fictional, is a crucial role for libraries and self-publishing platforms to enable to even greater degrees.

Remember that libraries have entered the publishing world primarily as a means to make their collection more known and available. We’re seeing this trend change, as community needs evolve and the role libraries play in the community evolves in parallel.

Let’s take a step back and look again at the three roles a library plays, based Conrad’s assessment:

Community Archive

The original purpose libraries served was to archive knowledge and literature. The goal behind this archiving aside, the result is the preservation of historical information on a grand scale. To this day, the central function of libraries are to act as an archive for society.

On a local level, the individual community libraries archive information in two important and divergent ways. One involves the retention of the community history itself, retaining works by local figures or authors, and preserving the history of the place. The other is to provide access to history and literature from across the world. We have the opportunity to read literary works from authors around the globe, and thanks to the Internet, libraries can become a focal point for finding relevant information about the world in all of its forms.

Self-publishing is more relevant to the first concern than the second, and as such we’ll focus on that one now.

Local interest work, such as community members writing a history of the town or a travel guide about local sites of interest, are obvious needs a library can facilitate. But there are also the authors in the community – writers ranging from hobbyists to serious novelists – who can benefit from library support. The challenge for all such content creators is bridging the gap between creating and self-publishing their content, and getting their content into the library.

Currently a self-published author goes through the process of publishing and registering their book with the Library of Congress (in the USA) before they can even approach a library to see about getting a copy of their book archived and made available. But author’s can close the loop a little by engaging with their local library from the beginning of the process. If the library aims to compile and retain the work of those from the area the library services, they should be both eager and willing to help ensure all the proper steps are taken along the way.

Remember that libraries serve their communities primarily as an archive, but they are also advocates for those local creators.

Engaging the Community

The modern public library is as much a community gathering place as an archive. Library space can accommodate a range of community activities, not just pertaining to writing and books. With this in mind, libraries can become a center for all kinds of writing and eventually publishing activity. By hosting writing workshops, providing access to computers with writing software, and by featuring local authors, the library can make good on the promise to be an archive as well as a community hub.

Engagement is the role self-publishing most completely fulfills for libraries. Here is an opportunity for digital tools like Lulu’s free self-publishing platform to open up the publishing world for people who might not have known the option existed previously! Through advocacy and hosting of workshops or how-to lectures, libraries can empower their community to become content creators, and thanks to the library’s primary function as an archive, the self-published author can find an immediate home for their work.

By facilitating both the publishing process and the learning curve that goes along with publishing, libraries can build their archive of community created content, foster a culture of creation, and bring in community members to engage with the library in new ways.

Serving the Community Needs

A locally authored work is likely to have a strong impact in that community. We don’t even need data to back up this statement. If you discovered Dave from the next street over wrote a novel, or Janet the grade school teacher responsible for your children’s education wrote a history of the town, you’ll naturally become interested. The proximity to the source is enough to compel many to read the work.

In this way, the library serves the community by making available those local authors. And they archive those same authors, so generations to come can look back at the historical and literary work of locals.

Many of the community needs a library will fulfill fall well outside the realm of self-publishing (such as providing Internet access or meeting space), but providing the tools and instructions for local writers serves the need of those writers in the community. From strictly a writer’s perspective, libraries are critical as a meeting space and means of tapping into the local writing and literary community. Broadening that purpose allows libraries to attract new writers, to encourage creativity, and in doing so to ensure their own continued necessity. So long as people continue to tell their stories, libraries will continue to have an integral role in society.

By forming a mutually beneficial relationship with authors, libraries expand their reach within the community and fulfill their role as an archive for the community.

Lulu and Libraries

Here at Lulu, we’ve always known how important libraries are for our authors and for our readers. As the space between libraries and self-publishing narrows, Lulu is right there to help.

We make local efforts regularly to help libraries with their community goals. One recent effort focused on a local bookstore for kids. We built a small lending library for them, allowing passerby to take book or leave one, sharing their favorite books or an extra copy they might have lingering on a shelf.

Here’s a short video on the Lulu lending library:

A lending library is not exactly the same as a community library, but the idea (archiving and sharing books) stays true. But this is only a small way we can help promote literacy and assist communities in creating connections with their library.

Another effort Lulu has been engaged in for the last few years involves using libraries as an educational meeting ground. We schedule “library talks” and a Lulu team member or two spends an evening providing interested community members with self-publishing advice and instruction. By getting out in the community and engaging with the people who use the library regularly, we’re fostering a bond between the people, the library, and the technology that allows them to self-publish. Our hope is that authors who attend will spread the word about self-publishing, and better understand the ways their local library can facilitate and assist in the process from start to finish.

Because that’s really the goal for both self-publishing companies and libraries: to empower citizens with the tools to read, research, write, and publish. Libraries will continue to be a community hub not just for the archiving and use of past and present content, but they will also continue to become maker space for creatives to meet, learn, and publish their work.