How long have people been proclaiming the end of libraries? How long have librarians been tossing around the word “relevant” as if it might hurt us?
Personally, I believe that if libraries are doing their jobs they can never become irrelevant or obsolete. We provide access to information and expert research assistance. We connect people with ideas, imagination, and community. These things are so basic to what it means to be human, and to have a good life, that libraries (or at least, what libraries do) should always be at the heart of things.
Now, I’m fully aware that many things are changing. My own relationship with information and reading changes with the technology I’m using and the venues, virtual or otherwise, where I’m engaging with info, ideas and stories. But just because we have search engines and e-books and transmedia storytelling doesn’t mean that libraries are done for. We do face some big challenges–potential opportunities–as formats, access and profit models are in flux, and as world economies continue to struggle. Libraries can be poised to make ourselves even more essential as these struggles move forward.
While the social, economic, political, and technological environments in which we live and work undergo constant change, the essential mission of the public library—to connect people with information, ideas, story, and community—will not change. Neither will the role of library staff as ambassadors, actively representing the library and its value as an engine for prosperity and quality of life. One of our greatest opportunities is to heighten that ambassadorship. Our goal should be to eliminate the ignorance factor: too many people in our communities and in the media don’t really know what we do or what we offer, and therefore find it too easy to disregard or to dismiss us (not to mention defund us). As the world remakes its economies, libraries are more essential than ever. We have the chance to place ourselves center stage in civic planning.
Welcoming all users as a shared civic good, public libraries also become a place where a community meets itself–where all the faces and all the conditions, which might not mix otherwise, can witness one another, and (if we do our job right) understand one another as neighbors. This can be uncomfortable, given our species’ evolutionary habit of feeling most safe among those we think resemble us, and fearing those we don’t. As economics and politics sharpen our differences and make angry, defensive voices louder, the library has the opportunity to enact the alternative principles of curiosity, openness, and equity through our collections, our spaces and resources, our programs, and our policies.
As technologies, formats, access avenues and expectations for access change, both for books and for information, libraries have the opportunity to demonstrate their agency by acting as high-profile advocates of readers and learners of all backgrounds and conditions. Publishers face thorny challenges with electronic formats, a rapidly evolving device market, and unpredictable patterns of usage and demand. They will continue their work to develop models that allow them to profit while responding to user expectations in the downloadables market. At the same time, database vendors are shifting their models and pricing structures, as user needs and expectations regarding paid research continue to evolve, along with the movement for net neutrality. The library’s role is absolutely essential in both of these landscapes—reminding publishers and vendors of the value (and power) of lending, and making certain to protect and support those for whom the new technologies remain either out of reach or bewildering.
Libraries will continue to innovate for information services, programming and outreach. We will explore new ways to meet people’s needs as their habits and attitudes toward information-seeking change, whether we meet them in person or electronically. Social media and online creativity tools let us engage directly with library users. We build stake-holding in the library by providing meaningful and enriching activities that speak directly to peoples’ interests and also bring them together across disparate backgrounds—again, whether in person or in the cloud. Innovative programming creates its own opportunities to fulfill the library’s mission, to reach under-served populations, and once again to demonstrate the library’s value.