April 22, 2018

Things That Go “Bump” | Office Hours

What keeps you up at night?

I ask this question at some of my library conference presentations as a way to break the ice and get people sharing. The answers are usually in a similar vein: budgets, ebooks, and losing relevance. We might even call those answers the unholy trinity of librarian insomnia.

Relevance seems to be the most troublesome for our profession as we find ourselves yet again doing all those things that begin with “re”: reimagining, reinvigorating, and renewing this, that, and the other. And just as librarians struggle with relevance, I sincerely hope those of us in LIS education are doing the same. That keeps me up at night, especially when I hear from colleagues who question why they should be hiring MLIS grads when other skills and other degrees seem much more useful to the mission of the library.

Check under the bed

A few strategies with regard to relevance, then, to ease your sleep on a cold winter’s night:

Get out there. Be visible. As reference statistics wane and paper reference collections dwindle, the need for a visible, vocal presence outside of our library walls is imperative. LIS schools that teach courses focused on marketing and advocacy are well positioned to produce grads that can get out into the community, make a case for increased or stable funding, and more. Pair those skills with a strong background in community building and technology, and it’s a match made in heaven. Maybe the discussions (and apprehensions) surrounding the relevance of libraries and librarians are actually founded in our prevailing history of timidity and reticence.

Get serious about learning (of all kinds). One area of emphasis within the strategic mission of public libraries is lifelong learning, but all types of libraries can support this goal. Educator and researcher Roger Hiemstra argued that three forces propel a person’s ongoing interest and need for lifelong learning: constant change, occupational obsolescence, and an individual’s desire for self-actualization. Libraries tap into these needs by providing learning opportunities, both formal (classes, lectures) and informal (at a desk, in the stacks, or out in the field).

Many people now turn to public libraries specifically for instruction and information on various technologies and applications. Providing training and assistance to patrons is a key area when offering technology-related services in public libraries. As technologies evolve, so does the need for more training opportunities.

A scan of the technology-related learning classes offered by some of the major public libraries in the United States also provides a snapshot of the need for tech-focused training. The popularity of classes concentrating on Internet resources, productivity applications such as those from Microsoft, and specialized classes on digital photography, online selling, and the various “hot” technologies of the day continues to expand.

The next step is more learning via various methods. MOOCs (massive open online courses) for your patrons, anyone? The possibilities are endless.

It makes sense, then, that LIS schools should ensure that students are versed in effective methods of teaching and promoting opportunities to learn in various ways.

Get creative. This doesn’t have to involve 3-D printers. I am loving what I see happening in Illinois’s Oak Park Public Library’s “Idea Box” space. Each month, a new creative activity is presented for patrons. Post-it notes sharing on the walls, learning opportunities, and arts and crafts all play a role: “Idea Box offers fresh ways to engage library customers in lifelong learning through creative play and fun.” As I write, the current Idea Box offering is a wall-sized Lite-Brite-type art project with golf tees. Can you imagine the insights we might glean from user creations within projects like these?

Put your mind at ease

This is doable in your library, folks. Look for ways to encourage the creativity of your users. Have some space to repurpose? Unleash ideas. Open minds. We are so much more than a book warehouse or Wi-Fi access point or that place that rents the movies. Once we start believing it and acting on it, it’ll be even easier for our users to do the same.

Meanwhile, LIS needs to keep pace with these changes—from classes devoted to building and managing a creation/Maker space to planning for services that push the limits of what a traditional library should be. Let’s start preparing our students for tomorrow’s libraries. When we’ve spent so much time teaching people how to collect and share items, it’s a big step to move to teaching people to create something new and then send it home with them. Some folks say LIS students should take some classes outside of library school to get what they need. I’ll continue to argue for a fluid, ever-evolving curriculum backed up by our core values. Rest up. Tomorrow looks great.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Ingrid Novikova says:

    This article is excellent and it inspires me. But, what happen
    when the administrators are completely old fashioned and
    against the progress, technology and the constant changes in LIS field.
    It is really a problem. I am in MLIS program and I’ll be graduated
    by next year. To be honest, I’m worried about to get a new job in a different place where I
    can use my skills.