The Library as the Central Institution of the Knowledge Economy

Posted by Dr. Norman Jacknis on January 21, 2016 at 8:25 AM

Americans live in an economy in which an increasing number of us make a living based on the knowledge we have and we offer to others. One estimate, almost ten years ago, noted that only 40 percent of jobs had no significant knowledge tasks. With increased automation of those jobs, the percentage of people in the knowledge economy is only increasing. Newspapers have reported the many almost desperate ways that people are trying to learn. But most adults are overwhelmed and frustrated in this effort.

The library is the most cost-effective widely available institution that can help individuals keep up their skills and knowledge. During the age of mass publishing of printed books in the 19th century, librarians took on the responsibility of curating and organizing the collections of books people needed. In this century, librarians can do the same for the digital materials that people need to prosper in the knowledge economy.

Because there is so much knowledge now, this is a big task for any single reference librarian. However, almost all libraries and librarians are now connected through the Internet, which allow them to network with other libraries. This means that each librarian can develop a specialty in a subject and then be available nationwide as the go-to reference librarians on that topic. It may be something as local as the history of their library’s city or as general as Greek pottery or chemical engineering. In this collaboration, all libraries will end up being able to provide much greater and richer knowledge to their local patrons, without an increase in budget. Just imagine the impact of the 70,000+ American librarians and 150,000+ other library staff working together!

The Aspen Institute’s report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries, envisions the aforementioned dynamic as a national digital platform. This can come to life in many ways, one of which has great economic significance.


Dr. Norman Jacknis

President, Metropolitan New York Library Council

Senior Fellow, the Intelligent Community Forum