“The library in 2020 will offer a culture of generosity supported by fiscal oversight that reflects rigorous controls and realistic projections,” writes Josie Barnes Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, in Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library (Scarecrow). In comparison to many of the predictions in the book of essays, this statement seems very conservative in its pragmatic approach. Nonetheless, it has resonated with me as I think about what drives effective decision making in a time of change.
Parker’s focus on how generosity is linked to responsibility points to a fundamental goal of librarianship—delivering the best service for the public dollar. It also provides a path forward, by articulating how generosity connects to responsive services. Even with a strapped budget, a truly generous approach enables a crystal clear view of real needs, and the community will respond with support. This outlook is actually powerful fuel for innovation that matters.
Parker is in good company in Library 2020. The editor of the collection, Joseph Janes, associate professor and chair of the University of Washington’s MLIS program, gathered 24 voices from across the profession to think ahead, and they tackle the question with the individuality one would expect from these library leaders. We decided to share some of these visions in these pages to get the creative juices flowing as we at LJ gear up for our upcoming free day-long virtual event, The Digital Shift: Reinventing Libraries, coming October 16.
In this issue, Bill Ptacek envisions a nimble institution that is “more about what it does for people than what it has for people” (see “The Library as Catalyst for Civic Engagement”). Ptacek, director of the King County Library System, LJ’s 2011 Library of the Year, articulates many strategies to foster a robust and relevant institution as times change. Two more essays will follow in upcoming issues.
Ptacek is optimistic, as are the bulk of the essayists. But a few share the darkness that lies ahead if the profession does not adapt quickly enough. It’s useful to hear the warnings inherent in a dystopian outlook. The potential solutions that populate utopian visions, however, give me tools to work with and energy to embrace the ongoing reinvention we’re experiencing.
As you read what these leaders posit, you may not agree with them. And a lot of the particulars are likely to be at least a bit off the mark. Because, while 2020 is right around the corner, it’s eons away if change is as rapid as it has been over the last seven years, or even the last three—as Gluejar’s Eric Hellman found in his piece on libraries’ morphing competitors, “Start-Ups Take Library Jobs.” This reinforces that acting creatively in alignment with principles that are tied to core values is more likely to bring success than getting distracted by fads. Parker, for one, shows us that if you act generously now, you can actually build “a culture of generosity” with libraries at the center.
I tried my hand at prediction in 2007, writing “The Library as Storyplace” for an issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine dedicated to the world in 2025. Today I cringe at much in that piece, but appreciate the key principles I attempted to place in that future. Now, in my own answer to Janes, I have a list of things I’d like to see be true for libraries in 2020, but for the moment I will focus on one: the library as the ultimate commons. It is a place where privacy and community meet. It is a vital, and, perhaps most importantly, non-commercial place of private or shared discovery. The library continues to choose not to compromise privacy, even for convenience—its own or its users’. It continues to drive discoveries and robust learning, offering access to unexpected viewpoints and things you didn’t know you even needed. And, you can thrive here, because what you have read—and created—is safe with us unless and until you decide you’re ready to share it.
For me, this is a utopia worth protecting and fostering with smart actions now.