Despite living in an age known for digital interconnectedness, the product that unequivocally took my breath away in recent memory was built in 1898, is not a modern technological product, and is not a product of a for-profit organization.
In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the energy of the people looking to build the future is tangible. Venture Capital investments have been generally growing over the past couple of years, attracting many people to the potential for technology to create change. But in our hasty, inexperienced fervor to “move fast and break things”, startups often ignore lessons that prompt us to think carefully about the future by learning from the past. Technology, especially software, is criticized for being volatile as upstarts focus on catching current trends of the market that quickly become obsolete, making a few unicorns extremely wealthy.
As valid as many of these criticisms are, I am a firm believer in using technology to solve our problems. Even in just the past century, technological progress has changed our transportation systems, metropolitan infrastructure, communication and media channels, energy production and distribution, and so much more.
Technology continues to change the world today. I grew up watching social networks and the internet radically change the way that politics are discussed, entertainment is consumed, and purchases are delivered. How will the next big thing change the way that we live?
Through my internships and conversations in Silicon Valley, I’ve realized that building a product is more than the technology itself. The old adage of “if you build it, they will come” is simply not true. In order to build a product and company that lasts, the technology is only the foundation for launching and growing a successful product and company.
Design thinking, a process made popular by IDEO, is a process of building products by empathizing with your users. Design thinking starts getting a clear understanding of your user’s problems, likes, dislikes through a mix of observation and careful interviews. Design thinking has proven itself to be a powerful new framework in creating new products and services. Design thinking is only one of the many theories and frameworks that have been developed over the years to help companies become successful. Other frameworks such as Good to Great, Zero to One, and The Lean Startup are a few others.
If we continue to zoom out and ask ourselves how to build products and companies that last, we suddenly find ourselves dealing with government regulations, political systems, economic systems, social structures, etc. This is because companies are part of a global infrastructure and more than simply the domains and industries they operate in. The invention of the printing press didn’t just allow people to mass produce written works of literature, it completely refactored the way that social structures were organized. People began reading the Bible for themselves and thinking at higher levels of abstraction.
Social Entrepreneurship, a term that has gained popularity in the past decade, is founded on the principle that building a company simply to maximize returns for investors is not the best long term strategy. Out of these new wave of entrepreneurs comes products built to provide green energy for the world, data for political decision making, and educational tools for helping underperforming students have access to getting a leg up. This suggests that the next level of “user research” is “geo-poli-econ-socio research”, which is concerned with how products affect groups of people at scale.
With this in mind, I started looking for non-traditional examples of extraordinary products that have been around for a significant amount of time, consistently provided immense value to users, and continues to be the leader in some sort of grand contribution to mankind.
The moment I stepped into the Library of Congress, I knew that I had found what I was looking for.
Inside, I observed a father and his daughter gathered around the Gutenberg Bible. He was explaining to her the significance of the bible in the context of our modern world, and why books are no longer printed the way that the Gutenberg Bible was. I began thinking about the book that was in front of me, of all the people that had ever come in contact with that copy of the Gutenberg bible, and how incredible it was to be seeing the Bible with my very own eyes.
At over 160 million items in its collection, the Library of Congress is a museum, a public space, an epicenter of knowledge, and an embodiment of democratic ideals wrapped up into one institution.
Like any well-planned successful product, the Library of Congress has a clear sense of the audience that it serves.
Over 1.7 million people visit the Library of Congress every year, most of which fall into one of two personas: people who visit the library as a tourist, and people who visit the library to “research”.
For tourists, the Library of Congress has opened the front half of the Jefferson building for tourists to explore and learn about the library. There, guests can see the Giant Bible of the Mainz and the Gutenburg Bible. Guests also have access to a few historical exhibits and a way to look into the main reading room to admire the beautiful architecture of the building. For people seeking to read the books in the library, getting a free card in the Madison building takes less than five minutes, allowing cardholders to access the reading rooms and request any of the books to be delivered to them in the reading rooms.
But beyond the day to day visitors that are considered the library’s “users”, the Library of Congress also has a larger audience in mind: Americans that may not even be born yet.
The transcendence of time is one of the lessons to be learned uniquely from the Library of Congress. The dedication to preserving and sharing human knowledge makes the Library of Congress an institution resistant to changes in the market because it’s accumulated resources become collectively more valuable over time.
In 2014, the Library of Congress added 2.7 million new physical items (net value of $32 million) into their collection.3 In the same year, over 7 million items were bound, repaired, mass-deacidified, microfilmed, or otherwise reformatted. The National Preservation Research Agenda for the Human Record is the long-term plan laid out by the Library of Congress to ensure that their collections are properly maintained, protected, and preserved.5
In the same way that the Library of Congress has seeked to create an accessible collection of knowledge for Americans, the internet is a modern day attempt at creating a digitally and globally accessible library. And like the Library of Congress that becomes more valuable the more resources it accumulates, so does the internet become more valuable the more people use it.
Many consumer social networks on the internet today already follow this insight. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are all products that become more valuable when more people use them. If no one you knew was on Facebook, you wouldn’t use it either.
But how are we using the products we build to invest in the internet itself, ensuring that it is a resource that our children will find more valuable in their day than it is right now?
The Library of Congress exemplifies why commitments to net neutrality are so crucial. Having uncensored, unfiltered access to all knowledge in the world, whether digital or physical, helps us to lay the foundation for an educated nation.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” – Thomas Jefferson
Throughout history, owning books was a hobby for the wealthy. For centuries, only the most wealthy individuals had the ability to read and write, leaving vast disparities in the social classes. And even in colonial America, books were not necessarily a commodity for the pedestrian.
The United States was born on a radical idea known as democracy which believed that a nation should be governed by it’s people. In America’s flavor of democracy, the people are responsible for choosing people who will best represent their interests, allowing the majority of citizens to be served by the people they elect.
The spirit of this democracy is for ordinary people to take power and make a difference in the country. In that sense, the welfare of the country should not be the responsibility of the government, but the responsibility of people and corporations supported by the government.
The Library’s mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.
Thus, by allowing ordinary citizens to freely access the resources housed within the Library of Congress, the Library of Congress not only provides value to the visitors that walk through the door, it provides implicit value to the city and the nation.
The lesson here is that as companies building long-lasting, sustainable products, we have an obligation to support the cities that we inhabit. What good is it to benefit the world with a powerful network of people and ideas if we can’t support the people who live down the street?
Gentrification is a problem in many of our cities, Silicon Valley being no exception. But if we think about Silicon Valley as a product, are we happy with what we’ve built?
“Social Entrepreneurship” isn’t a fluffy, do-gooders attempt to combine social/political issues with an ambition to benefit from the capitalist system. Running a profitable business at scale while also serving the community in an effective way is no easy task. The truly innovative products find a way that is mutually beneficial for all parties without compromise.
The Copyright Act of 1870 centralized the copyright registration and deposit system in the Library of Congress, giving it the ability to fund some of it’s own operations through the business of managing copyrighted works. Additionally, the act mandated that two copies of every book, pamphlet, map, print, photograph, and music registered for copyright be deposited into the Library.
This brilliant operating model allows the Library of Congress to serve the needs of individuals looking to protect their content while simultaneously increasing their collection without paying to obtain new items. This way, most of the money appropriated to library services is used to preserve collections, support staff, maintain facilities, and acquire older resources.
How can we build a company that capitalizes on the value that is created while simultaneously playing a part in making the world a better place?
The Library of Congress teaches us that it’s possible to generate revenue while doing good. Through its gift shop, federal research programs, decimal classification, document reproduction and microfilm services, special events and programs and related services, the Library of Congress generated $89.5 million in revenue in the 2014 fiscal year.3
One example of a commercial product with an innovative model benefitting the public is Duolingo. By using the collective group of users learning a language on their site, Duolingo is able to translate openly-licensed internet resources for free. By thinking carefully about the operating model upon which we build our products, we can come up with innovative ways to give back.
“Evolution of the environment shapes the evolution of humanity. We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” – Buckminster Fuller
As a Computer Scientist by training, my job is to facilitate interactions by thinking about inputs, control flow, and outputs. And while big, sweeping brushstrokes makes programming seem simple, the devil is in the details. Small mistakes while programming often lead to programs quitting part way through execution. This means that when writing computer code, it is imperative to think about how all the variables are interacting under the hood.
But as technological tools become more advanced, they serve as scaffolding for engineers to build at higher levels of abstraction, reshaping the ways that we think about engineering. The insight here is that our ontologies, the way we organize our knowledge, shapes the way we think.
The architecture developed and used by the Library of Congress (and countless more libraries around the world) for organizing their collection is known as the Library of Congress Classification. A good classification system facilitates efficient search, discovery, and maintenance.
The Library of Congress Classification begins with a set of letters indicating the category that it belongs to.4 Multiple letters indicate subcategories of the preceding letter. The numbers following the first set of letters further delineates the specific category to which the book belongs. Try exploring the classification below.
Explore the Library of Congress Classification6
scroll through the lists and select a category
The Library of Congress Classification defines the relationships and boundaries between disciplines. To an academic making sense of the world, this organization is a good thing. The classification system breaks things down into nicely defined partitions of knowledge that we can easily understand. It is through this ontological system that students are taught to understand the world. By clearly delineating American History (E) and Political Science (J), we come to think about the two as different categories, whether they are or not.
And while the Library of Congress Classification has been imperfectly forced to keep up with a changing world, the lesson is clear: how we choose to organize things impacts the ways that we think and act on things.
Things are very different today than they were when the Library of Congress was founded. The Internet has fundamentally transformed the way that many of us do research and consume content. The Internet has enabled more ways of sharing media such as blog articles, news websites, online video. These new mediums have enabled faster and cheaper distribution as well as greater accessibility and volume.
And as things are becoming increasingly more interconnected and accessible, the potential for a small group of people to use technology to impact lives is greater than it has ever been before. As people who build new software products in 2016, let’s also think carefully about the consequences of our products at scale, paying attention to the communities around us.
Note: This blog post was written for the challenge section of the KPCB Product Fellows Application.
- “Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress.” (2015): n. pag. Library of Congress. Web. https://www.loc.gov/portals/static/about/reports-and-budgets/documents/annual-reports/fy2014.pdf.
- “A Brief History of the Library of Congress.” Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. https://www.loc.gov/loc/walls/history.html.
- “Financial Statements” (n.d.): n. pag. Library of Congress. Web. https://www.loc.gov/portals/static/about/reports-and-budgets/documents/financial-statements/fy14.pdf.
- “Library of Congress Classification Outline.” Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. https://www.loc.gov/catdir/cpso/lcco/.
- “National Preservation Research Agenda for the Human Record.” Library of Congress. N.p., n.d. Web. http://www.loc.gov/preservation/scientists/projects/agenda.html.
- Bcj/lcc. GitHub. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2016. https://github.com/bcj/lcc.