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17 Aug 2010 / Julie

the future of the library

There has been a lot of talk lately about the future of libraries¬†and what our fate holds for us. In fact- there was just an entire conference on it (RefRen10: Inventing the Future). Ebooks have caused the most recent identity crisis for us (and for barnes and noble and publishers, etc) but this is not a new story for this particular profession. Although i have not been in libraryland this long, this is probably the same conversation that people were having when someone tried to get a telephone at the reference desk oh those many years ago – and now it’s business as usual.

The focus, for whatever reason, seems to always be on the “technology” (usually perceived as disruptive) and how it’s going to put us out of business or put a lot of us out of jobs or some such other nonsense. Books- for instance, are perceived as our primary business- not just by the customers (usually non-users) but also (unfortunately) by those who work in libraries (time for you to retire yet?). When i was in library school i remember discussions about libraries versus booksellers. It was always “versus” and i never understood why since we’re not really in the same business.

And now, as people are freaking out about ebooks, i ask the same question- why?

It seems we forget that our business is not defined by our things – the modes in which our information is delivered- physical book, ebook, database, audio cd, computer, etc- our technology if you will. The library is NOT an information warehouse and calling it such removes the element that actually IS our business – the people. Calling us “information gatekeepers” also does us a disservice – enforcing that stereotype that we are better than you and only we can dole out the world’s knowledge on a need-to-know basis and only if you’re worthy. Um, no.

Libraries are in the people business and i’d like to invite everyone who is in the profession on a front lines service desk who does not agree with me to do some soul searching and perhaps find another calling. Libraries are in the people business- connecting people to people (staff to customers and customers to their communities) and people to things (information, skills, knowledge, etc); usually people to the things they need to become better people. When libraries define themselves through their community, suddenly the technology doesn’t matter. And it shouldn’t. Technology is simply a way of getting things done, of solving problems. Sure, I’ll be the first to sign up for something flashy and new just because it is such but that doesn’t mean i’m going to implement it on a system-wide basis simply because it’s “the new thing.” In fact i’m very much against technology for technology’s sake in this context. With something new and interesting, I’m going to file it away and hope i recall it later when i’m faced with a challenge it might help solve. Wordle, for instance- was fun to play with in the beginning but what the hell can i use a word cloud for? Not much… until it came time to write the final grant report and i needed a visual way of representing the year’s worth of customer comments. Bingo.

That’s a simple example but i’m hoping you get my drift. If we define ourselves by the needs of the people in our community, and the relationships we build with them, suddenly we’ve just given ourselves the flexibility to ebb and flow with whatever the world throws at us. Suddenly “omg mobile” doesn’t seem so scary.

See, we have to be limber. Not just people and libraries, but everyone. Businesses that can’t move with the waves of life suffer. Take Western Union- the president of the company in 1876 said,¬†”this ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” Missed opportunity there. And i bet he’d pass out if he could look around the world today.

We’re very good, in libraries, at letting others decide what we should be doing – waiting for others to define who we are and what business we’re in. The great thing about the future that people tend to forget is that WE CAN INVENT IT! The Future is not something that happens to us; we are something that happens to the future. Feel free to quote me on that.

Seriously though, if libraries defined their identities and purposes by their specific community’s needs and stopped worrying about what other people were doing (not in that informed, always-looking kind of way but the “i don’t know what to do, oh lets do what they’re doing” kind of way), libraries would be more embraced into their community as a whole, start to chip away at the stereotype (the stuffy one, not the sexpot one.. though that annoys me too), and be more relevant to their worlds and more flexible as technology shifts (as it tends to do).

It’s our communities that binds us together. Sure, everyone has a hugely different demographic and community base but regardless of who their community is, libraries should be building relationships with those people, asking them what they need in life, and then providing it (either directly or as a referral or partnership).

I’ll go back to my mobile example from a bit ago- Sure, mobile is the thing we need to be in right now- its not going away. the xx billion text messages sent daily is a sign that something’s up. But if your small town library serves a community of aging ESL, perhaps texting and mobile isn’t really a bandwagon you should be jumping on right yet. But if you have conversations with them – keep them up to date with the world just as you try to be as a professional (you ARE, right?) and it piques their interest – ask them what they want to do. Maybe they’ll surprise you and already all have iphones and they want to try this new augmented reality thing. Or maybe you’ll delight them when they finally learn how to retrieve a text message from their granddaughter. You never know unless you ask.

The moral of the story is this- Stop freaking out about technology. Play with it, learn it, talk to people about it, but don’t let it cause an identify crisis. Be flexible. Build relationships with your community. Ask them what they need (and then give it to them).

So- now that i’ve said all that… what do YOU think the future of libraries is? I want to hear what you have to say- comment or trackback. :-)

[oh, and for giggles, here’s this post in wordle (for no good reason other than i felt like it)]

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