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.

Teens, Young Adults: Developing Humans (ain’t we all)

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Teens’ lives are defined by a mix of dependence and independence, as well as by developmental realities that can put them at odds with the adult world. Their main task in life, which hits with an intensity that can feel like life and death, is to find out who they are, how they feel, and what they can be. They generally try to find the answers to those questions by connecting with (or trying to connect with) other teens. Popular culture, technology, and electronic environments help them connect with each other in their own, self-created worlds where most adults will fear to tread or at least not know the way. Both adults and teens have the same basic library needs for information, recreation, and connection, but the differences in their life stages require some specialized skills and knowledge for working with teens.

While it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to turn away from adults, and to at least appear to actively disregard adult authority figures, the process has the disadvantage of relying for answers on other teens—who tend to lack the clarity and perspective that would be most helpful. Teens still need adults, both to provide practical things like material security and transportation, and to provide the positive role models for what adulthood might look like and the structure and support to help them get there. Teens need mentors. They do not need adults to be their buddies, and heaven help adults who try to be “cool” with teens. What they need from adults includes respect for their abilities, energy and talents, and room to express and create themselves freely; but they also need clearly defined and consistently reinforced boundaries. Teens deserve adults who recognize the great things they are capable of, and trust them with meaningful responsibility, while remaining present for guidance and support. I rely on these standards in my own work with teens. If the library can welcome and engage teens, librarians are well-positioned to mentor them at a time when other adults in their lives (parents, teachers, school administrators) have a harder time sustaining trust.

The brains of young adults are still developing neurologically in the areas that govern what adults think of as good sense and good planning. In your teen years you are especially inclined to risk-taking and thoughtless behavior with or for your friends at a time when you can’t always see where it might lead, partly because of inexperience and partly because your brain isn’t quite there yet. Hence the need for mentors. Research has also shown another great Catch-22 of adolescent brain development: teens have difficulty accurately interpreting emotional states in facial expressions and body language. At the very moment when knowing what other people think of you is one of the prime mortal organizers of your world, you cannot rely on your ability to do so—and you don’t know it.

A key difference between working with adults and working with teens is understanding and embracing these developmental realities. The basic principles of library service remain the same for both age groups: you fulfill information requests without judgment, you respond to the interests and tastes of your audience with appropriate and appealing activities that fit their schedules, and you reach out to them with meaningful services and resources. To work well with teens you need to be attuned to their specific needs, familiar with their world and their priorities, and ready to demonstrate both your respect for them, and your requirement that they respect you and the needs of other library users.