November 19, 2017

Between Pressure & Promise: Where hyperlocal meets the big picture | Editorial

RebeccaWebEdit2015Trend watching is always fun, but it becomes an annual exercise when the New Year arrives and outfits large and small seize the moment to attempt to encapsulate the forces at work in their spheres. With the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting held so early this year, the 2016 trends deep dive dovetailed, for me, with the many conversations I had in Boston, which as usual ranged from essentially functional to highly aspirational, pinging between today’s pressures and tomorrow’s promise. It struck me that our collective work balances in that space, sometimes more precariously than others.

This got me thinking about the art of translating trends into real application in the library world and the risk of failing to see where they connect. As a group, librarians seem to love trend watching. The top tech trends panel is often the most packed of any conference session—and this year’s insights from Midwinter are fascinating. For one, robots in service roles at hotels in Japan indicate the increased capacity of autonomous agents (see LJ tech editor Matt Enis’s coverage in Bots, Block Chain, and Beacons: Hot Topics at LITA Tech Trends Panel). Combine that with the evolution from an economy anchored to full-time jobs to one struggling to cope with more and more part-time or “gig” work, as author Steven Hill describes in the recent Washington Monthly article Benefits for the Rest of Us. These trends have real implications for any organization, not to mention librarianship itself. Who wouldn’t want such perspective?

Organizationally complex institutions, libraries are inherently hyperlocal. Their local nature is one of their greatest assets. At their best, they are responsive and highly connected to community needs—as the Albert Wisner Public Library in Warwick, NY, the 2016 Best Small Library in America, illustrates. Excellent libraries are guided by the awareness of what is happening in the lives of the people they serve and the exploration of the gaps they can fill. They anticipate future needs by attending to the long view, looking beyond their own institution or region to be ready when change comes.

On the flip side, the requirement for the library to be intensely local and focused on serving the needs of today, every day—with limited resources and huge workloads—can build a too-tight frame around the library’s self-definition, as introspection becomes the prevailing practice. This relative passivity can be reinforced by the instinct to be conservative in light of tradition and past successful practice (“we’ve always done it this way”). Habit sets in, resulting in a myopia that misses crucial information on the horizon.

Even in less dire circumstances, a conservative stance toward change can be reinforced by the essential demand to be good stewards of our resources and to be perceived as such. Strong library leaders illustrate how beneficial change is worth funding and are transparent all along the way. They succeed time and again to win that trust. However, as John Chrastka and Rachel Korman note in their assessment of 2015 library referenda, some leaders hesitate to bring change to the community owing to the potential risks (see “The Constant Campaign,” LJ, February 2016, pp. 32–36).

Nonetheless, change comes. Cultural, technological, economic, and environmental forces create new local realities.

Looking inward and outward, successful leaders know how to map their hyperlocal experiences and drives to national trends and identify what is applicable. As LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz said as we discussed this tension, “the big picture part gives you bigger data and a further look than your local situation allows so you can project where it may be in five years and anticipate how to connect to future resources. The temptation is to cast it as an either/or, but if you go too far either way, you end up out of touch.”

I’ve got endless respect for the leadership who get it right, those who anticipate when to take action and bring support with them when they do. They have mastered the art of meeting in the middle, in the space where hyperlocal meets transformational trends. They know when buzz is just that. In the process, they help create the environment to influence civic priorities and strengthen the institution.

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Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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