February 17, 2018

No Escaping the Future | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

The whole point of future proofing, argues Steven Bell, is to create the structure today that will enable the library to thrive tomorrow.

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

I am hesitant to go so far as to say that academic librarians are obsessed with the future, but it seems that everywhere I turn in the world of librarianship these days I encounter books, reports, conference programs, blog posts, and conversations that have one thing in common—the future. A similar claim would be equally applicable to the field of higher education, which suffers from no dearth of projections about what the future holds.

It might just be that as we enter a new decade there is a naturally tendency to look ahead to the mid-point or end of the coming decade. But new decade or not, we just like to talk about the future. A few years back I used to jokingly advise colleagues to insert “Google” in the title of their article or conference proposal for a surefire winner. Now I’d advise them to make it “future.”

A few examples
Just this morning in my email I received notice of a new project in the UK titled “Towards the Academic Library of the Future” in which a collection of UK library organizations are embarking on an 18-month project to develop future scenarios for academic libraries.

At ALA the ALCTS Division actually had two, back-to-back full day programs on the future of libraries. Well, one of them was more about the future of information and the role of libraries. The other was on future trends and their effect on libraries. If you wanted to find out what more than a dozen librarians and non-librarians had to say about the future at these events you had to invest around $300. You could spend a whole lot less and perhaps do no worse with a fortune teller.

Then I received a catalog from Neal-Schuman and saw a new book titled Envisioning Future Academic Library Services. Trying to envision the future of libraries is such a preoccupation with us that we even have contests to see who can come up with the most outlandish vision.

And who can forget Seth Godin’s popular blog post on the “The Future of the Library”? A number of librarians were quick to point out the flaws in Godin’s thoughts about the future for libraries—although it seemed to me more about our immediate relevance than our future. We librarians like to talk about our future, but we like it less when non-librarians take a stab at it.

Higher education is not immune to this obsession with the future. A few weeks ago I came across this blog post written by a university president prognosticating on what he thought higher education would look like in 2020. But it seems like I’m always seeing predictions and what’s-coming-next reports from groups like New Media Consortium or EDUCAUSE.

No disrespect intended
While at least one library pundit agrees with me that our efforts at predicting our future are rather foolhardy, it certainly does give us something to talk about. Our predisposition for looking ahead to the future and attempting to predict what might be coming next seems to be part of the human condition. Just consider our fascination with a whole genre of futuristic science fiction novels, movies, and television shows. But when it comes to our work and ensuring that our libraries do have a future worth working towards, it is important that we pay at least some attention to both internal and external developments likely to impact us a year or two, or even five years from now.

Rather than simply partaking in the enjoyment of guessing what might be, however, we’d be better positioned by making a serious practice of environmental scanning and trend watching. Locally, we should be paying close attention to the financial situation at our institutions as well as admissions patterns, new shifts in the curriculum, hiring trends among the faculty and administrators, and any new planning documents that emerge. Externally, there is a constant need to gather and analyze news and information about higher education developments, demographic change, new socio-cultural trends, and of course, potential disruptive technology.

Making a habit of environmental scanning, with a bit of listening to the trend watchers and futurists, is simply good practice for both academic library administrators and frontline practitioners. We shouldn’t wait for the end of the year or the decade to consider waves of predictions. It’s our responsibility to always monitor the developments that could impact us.

Right here right now
When we each make it a personal responsibility to scan the environment and monitor the trends, the benefits accrue to our library organizations. Not only will our observations be more focused on and shaped by local issues and culture, but our response to these events is likely to happen right where it needs to—in the here and now. When vetted by staff, the information gathered can become a set of scenarios for establishing a six to 12 month plan.

While there’s no harm in hearing what the experts think, no librarian should need to rely on the infrequent predictions of library gurus, technology panelists, or renowned futurists for a future vision. The vision for what’s coming next and how to position the library to manage it should come from within. That’s why I encourage my colleagues and readers to read or re-read Library Journal’s Future-Proofing article, not so much for the individual ideas—there are some good ones there but you can probably come up with better ones yourself—but to put yourself in the frame of mind that preparing for the future is something we all need to integrate into our routine behavior. That’s the whole point of future proofing, to create the structure today that will enable the library to thrive tomorrow. There’s no escaping the future, but you can act today to be ready for whatever it may bring.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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