Library Futures

Libraries, Reading and Society

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. In public libraries (my professional and personal home) we also 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 with rebuilding from the “Great Recession.” Libraries can be poised to make ourselves even more essential as these struggles move forward.

Allow me to quote myself. In my job search I have made two applications recently that included Supplemental Questions asking me what I think libraries face in the next ten years. I particularly appreciated one potential employer (I love you, Multnomah County Library) for framing this question in terms of “opportunities” rather than the more worrisome “challenges” or “threats”. Here is what I said in response to the prompt to share my vision for public libraries in the next decade in 400 words or less:

While the social, economic 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 our role as ambassadors, actively representing the library and its value as an engine for prosperity and quality of life. One of our greatest opportunities in the next decade 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.

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. 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, with the possibility that paid research will migrate from database subscriptions to search engine platforms. 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 stakeholding in the library by providing fun 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 underserved populations, and once again to demonstrate the library’s value.