February 17, 2018

At Session on the Future of Libraries, a Sense of Urgency

By Norman Oder

  • The “ideas business”
  • “Nancy Pearl on steroids”
  • Social discovery services can help

It was billed as just a beginning of a look at the future of libraries, but panelists at an American Library Association (ALA) annual conference session in Anaheim, CA, Saturday sure had a lot to say about how libraries and librarians need to move forward now. The panel was sponsored by the Office of Information Technology Policy (OITP) of ALA’s Washington Office, which is taking an 18-month look at the future.

 (Check the LJ 2008 ALA Annual Conference page for more live coverage.)

“I think we’re going to be in the ideas business. Libraries will still have lots of things that look like we love,” observed consultant Joan Frye Williams, “but… it won’t be about the books and information as objects… and by the way, it’s not the ideas that are being offshored to Bangalore.” Beyond that, she said that libraries should be about relationships rather than transactions. (Hence her preferred term for library user: “member.”) And libraries should be “more and more a place to do stuff, not just to find stuff. We need to stop being a grocery store and being a kitchen.”

She added one “wild card,” suggesting that, as baby boomers age, a societal emphasis on wellness and health will increase: “I think there’s an under-optimized play on the library as a way to keep your brain alive. We’re a massive Alzheimer’s prevention program.”

How librarians triumphed
Stephen Abram, SirsiDynix’s VP of Innovation, produced a scenario 13 years hence, in which librarians had triumphed. “If we want to be treated as professionals,” he said, librarians shouldn’t wear badges that say merely “Librarian” without their name. He mocked those who say, “I don’t want to tell anybody my name, I might be stalked,” suggesting it doesn’t occur to workers at Wal-Mart.  If you want to be treated like a professional, you have start acting like one,” he said.

He asked how many attendees offered pictures of the staff on their library web sites? Few raised their hands. “Since when is the value in libraries in the books, not in the people?” he asked. “I want to see our whole profession where everybody’s Nancy Pearl on steroids.”

He challenged librarians who claim that the library’s fundamental difference is that it answers reference questions. “I haven’t met a single library that can tell you the top 100 reference questions” they get,” he said, suggesting libraries collaborate on a massive database to answer questions. Similarly, he suggested that libraries build a wiki to include all their program ideas: “We can have 1500 programs that are sustainable and we don’t have to make them from scratch.”

Among other suggestions: a .lib domain for all libraries and the purchase of AdWords by libraries.

And what drove libraries to drastic change? “In 2008, we had the worst year ever,” he said, hypothesizing that increases in the price of gas meant it cost more than 99 cents for many people to get to libraries—and Google began to rent books for less than that.

Librarians if not libraries
José-Marie Griffiths, Dean and a Professor of the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she saw a more positive future, perhaps, for librarians than for libraries, given a ‘huge wave of librarians who don’t work in libraries.” She is the principal investigator for an ongoing Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded study: The Future of Librarians in the Workforce – What will it look like?

While “we cannot lose that notion of collection,” she said of libraries’ traditional role, “no longer has it to be physically resident in one location.” She said she was concerned that librarians are “constantly looking at fine-tuning services for people who are current users,” while we need a better understanding of future users.

She said she agreed with Abram: “We’ve got to think bigger.”

Moving forward
Abram, asked how collective organization could coexist with locally funded libraries, suggested that, at the least, libraries could collaborate on their infrastructure, noting that library servers went down after flooding in the Gulf Coast and in the Midwest. “There are better ways to architect this stuff,” he said. “We have enough staff if we organize ourselves better.”

Williams said, “There are concentrations of talent to create support systems for libraries that have yet to be explored… The first step is to consolidate to some level of critical ability the delivery of support services.”

She added, “We have to get rid of idea that political autonomy is sacrificed in terms of efficiency.” Abram called it “appalling” that he can use a credit card anywhere but needs multiple library cards for nearby libraries.

How, asked one audience member, to get hidebound staff onboard? Abram suggested the 23 Things program from the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.Williams suggested trying to “connect the dots” to a staffer’s original motivation. If a staffer says “this is not what I signed up for,” Williams suggested, the response should be: “OK, what did you sign up for?”

Participants recommended an openness to other professionals and to library users. “We’ve treated the MLS like a firewall,” Williams observed. “Have you ever taken a recommendation for a book from a friend, without a degree? If we’re going to collaborate, we have to assume there are assets on both sides.” 

Abram suggested that the blooming of two new social discovery services, LibraryThing in the public library sector and BiblioCommons in both public and academic libraries, presaged important change.