May 11, 2018

The Library as Catalyst for Civic Engagment | Reinventing Libraries

From Joseph Janes, editor of Library 2020:

“Come to us for stuff.” I’m not sure any library has actually used that as a marketing pitch or description of its mission—pithy as it is. For many of us, though, it neatly encapsulates the libraries with which we grew up.

Look at that directive very closely, and you find three important words: come, us, and stuff. Each of them seems quite firm and familiar…but if you turn your head and squint a little, they all sort of go a bit fuzzy. What does come mean now? What do we mean by stuff? And who and what is us again?

It’s obvious that we are living through a transition away from—a diminishment of the importance of—the physical information object. Books, scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers, CDs, DVDs, even physical storage media and devices are being complemented and in many cases supplanted by digital, streaming, and cloud-based media.

This changing landscape of delivery models and distribution channels is giving publishers and others involved in the content distribution ecosystem new opportunities to maximize profit, even at the expense of old friends and compatriots like libraries. At the same time, it raises issues of intellectual property and privacy concerns, as well as cultural and social questions of what “writing” and “reading” will be and what new forms and genres will arise. These separate but related issues interact, and there are multiple actors involved, some in more than one of these realms. Taken together, they form one of the more pervasive themes of Library 2020, and that’s well illustrated by the essay here.

Joseph Janes

Joseph Janes

In assembling the book, I gave each contributor very little guidance and only two instructions: don’t be boring, and start your essay with “The library in 2020 will be….” I also tried to get a wide range of background, experience, point of view, and time in the profession. I got what I wanted. A set of a couple dozen essays, none more than a few pages long, with a multiplicity of ideas, images, and perspectives, ranging from just this side of sunshine and unicorns to bleak and dystopian, from some names you likely know and a few you’ll be hearing much more from in the future.

The good folks at LJ are very graciously excerpting three essays from the book over the next few issues, beginning with this piece from Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Library System (KCLS). KCLS is a great library (as is Seattle Public Library, the University of Washington libraries…we’re quite blessed here, not to mention that we have Nancy Pearl!), and it has experimented with a number of innovative and provocative ideas over the last decade or so, which you’ll get a taste of here.

One of the central, if not the central, premise of libraries, certainly in the popular mind-set, is books on shelves. And if there are fewer book on fewer shelves, then the library is for, um, what exactly?

Lots of people are asking that question. (More than a few, sadly, I fear, are not.) Many are thinking hard, critically, and creatively about it, and some are starting to come up with some most intriguing and stimulating answers. Read on!

In 2020, the public library will be a concept more than a place. The library will be more about what it does for people rather than what it has for people. As society evolves and more content becomes digital, people will access information in different ways. Physical items will be less important than they have been up to now. Library buildings and spaces will be used in different ways, and services will be provided beyond the building and virtually. The library as a catalyst for civic engagement will facilitate learning and growth for people of all ages.

Expanding the library footprint

The demand for public libraries has traditionally been driven by the users who walked through the doors. Reference librarians were on hand to answer patron questions primarily using print materials that were carefully collected to be responsive to such inquiries. Young children and their families visited the library to attend story times. Others perused shelves to find information to meet a need or pique an interest. In other words, people came to the place to get the service.

Over time, access to the library has expanded. Telephone service enabled patrons to find information without having to visit the library. Computer technology ushered in a whole new era that initially tethered patrons to library workstations but gradually cast a wider net so that patrons could use the library virtually by way of the Internet. Titles could be perused online rather than on shelves, and items could be held and picked up at any library location convenient to the patron. Reference services required less involvement by reference librarians as print resources gradually shifted to digital formats, enabling patrons to access information themselves, anytime or anywhere, without having to go through a “gatekeeper” librarian. In general, patrons appreciated the disintermediation of service.

Bill Ptacek

Bill Ptacek

As communication and digital technologies become even more pervasive, libraries will be required to provide content that can be used on whatever is the “device du jour.” That means there will be fewer print books on shelves and greater digital content available online. The library lending model of acquiring content for the entire community that can be used and shared by many will work as well with electronic formats as it does for print. Ten years from now, publishers (if they are still in the mix), authors, and content providers, such as Amazon, will recognize libraries as a viable distribution option for digital content that can help them maximize profits and increase the exposure of authors and their work in the same way that bookstores have done over the last century.

As these trends continue to evolve, there will be less programmed space in libraries. As libraries become less about physical access to information, they are more likely to be valued for their importance to the community—as gathering places for civic, educational, and social engagement. The experience of the King County Library System (KCLS) has been that as the size of the collection diminishes, the demand for computer workstations grows. KCLS’s libraries have always been full of people, from those studying for the bar exam to others who are homeless and seeking shelter from the elements. Students find libraries convenient places to work on homework or team projects, and community groups rely on the library for meeting spaces.

A place to learn

As new technologies become available, the library will be a place to go, either physically or virtually, to learn. Since the explosion in ereader sales, KCLS branches are filled with people who want to learn how to use this new technology. The popularity of discussion groups and lecture series creates a great model for lifelong learning, especially for the baby boomer generation that will be well into retirement ten years from now. Similarly, libraries provide tremendous assistance to people who are new to the country. Citizenship classes, English as second language classes, and life-skills programs are all popular in KCLS libraries. As a consequence of offering myriad services to transitional communities, entire families have become loyal library patrons—sometimes spanning several generations.

Hosting the civic discourse

Public libraries are local, neutral, and respected for providing information that represents different viewpoints. Given its resources and community connections, it is the perfect arena to engage the community in civic discourse on important community issues. With the demise of local news sources, it would be reasonable to assume that local governments, service providers, and community leaders will turn to the library as a venue for discussion and feedback on issues that affect the public. At the same time, this role is consistent with the public’s perception of libraries as a trusted source for information and meaningful community participation.

Recently, KCLS offered to initiate a civic-engagement process with the city of Kirkland, a mid-sized community in the KCLS service area. The city, which had acquired a portion of an abandoned railway corridor, wanted to solicit the community’s input on the best way to develop the land for public use, which included ideas such as a light-rail line, bike trail, nature trail, or park. The city’s usual decision-making process would have been to host a public meeting and gather comments from those attending, which typically are the same few people who attend every public meeting. KCLS’s process involved distributing and collecting comment forms at the Kirkland Library, hosting an online public forum, virtual meetings, a design charrette, and a culminating report to the Kirkland City Council. The process garnered input from nearly 700 people, including comments from experts outside the community who were interested in the issue and learned about it through the virtual forum.

Supporting students

Two other crucial areas that will define the public library of the next decade are its role in supporting the information needs of K–12 students and its position to lead community efforts for early-childhood literacy.

Public libraries can help meet the information needs of K–12 students who are affected by the erosion in funding for school libraries. Librarians will work closely with teachers to help them use or access information that best fits their curriculum needs. Digital reference materials in public library collections will be aggregated to fit specific needs or subject areas, and other library educational resources, such as instructional gaming software or the Kahn approach to independent learning, create services and resources perfectly suited to a public library–public school partnership. Outreach vehicles designed as mobile learning labs and stocked with math, science, and technology hardware and software will allow library staff to reach larger numbers of students at school and after-school sites. As schools face increasing pressure to achieve better student test scores, the library can provide materials and tutoring on test-taking techniques and other academic competencies required of youngsters who are entering the world of standardized tests. The KCLS Study Zone program is a free tutoring service offered after school and on weekends where students can work with a tutor on a drop-in basis or by scheduled visit. Some sites also offer smart tables that employ subject-based software geared toward group study sessions. This popular program is entirely supported by a broad network of KCLS volunteers.

Early-childhood development and early literacy are recognized as major elements in the success of students, schools, and, ultimately, the community. It is now proven that a child’s ability to read and learn is primarily formed by age five. Organizations such as United Way and other nonprofits have made early literacy the focus of many communitywide efforts to ensure that all children start school ready to learn. In today’s world, most preschool learning happens in day care, including home-based day cares, and public libraries are well positioned to use mobile outreach vehicles to reach home day-care providers, parents, and caregivers to offer reading-readiness programs for children under the age of five. In ten years, schools will recognize how crucial this issue is to their success and will work closely with children’s librarians, who have great expertise in early-childhood development, to identify areas in the community where the public library can make a difference.

The librarian of the future

The next decade’s librarian will spend less time dealing with the physical aspects of content, for example, labeling, shelving, or checking out items, and more time acting as consultant to the general public. Librarian as information expert will become librarian as psychologist or sociologist. Instead of being the gatekeepers to limited sources of information, they will need to be able to comb through vast amounts of data to find just the right information. Understanding the patron and linking that understanding to relevant content will be the art of librarianship. And all of this will take place inside the library, outside the library, or virtually.

It is imperative that the public library remain relevant to the people it serves. In the future, libraries will be less about services and more about how to be of service. Research on patron interests and behavior patterns will be crucial to this effort, and libraries will have to be adept at marketing and customer-insight techniques. If libraries can continue to stay ahead of the curve on new technologies and improve the patron experience, they will ensure the value of the library for the next generation.

Joseph Janes is Associate Professor and Chair of the MLIS Program at the University of Washington Information School, Seattle, and creator of “Documents That Changed the World,” a podcast series available on iTunes. Bill Ptacek is the director of the King County Library System, Issaquah, WA, the busiest library in the United States in 2010 and LJ’s 2011 Library of the Year.

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

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  1. Brian L. Baker says:

    What is “Engagment?” Is it a “50 Shades” thing? ;)

  2. smalltownlibrarian says:

    “Librarian as psychologist or sociologist.”

    I hate to bring this up, but if I’m supposed to be a psychologist or a sociologist, why get a degree in library science? More than half the time now, I’m wishing I had a degree in business or human resources. If a person has to add psychology and/or sociology on top of that, no one will never finish school to get a job at all.

  3. “Understanding the patron and linking that understanding to relevant content will be the art of librarianship.” That’s right, of course, and it requires no more psychology of sociology expertise than what librarians have always done — understand the patron and link that understanding to relevant content.

    To put it another way — the tools will change, but the purpose of librarians won’t. And thank goodness for that!

  4. Sherry Bailey says:

    Interesting viewpoint…

    However, 2020 is only 7 years away. I recognize that technological forces will continue to impact on what we are and what we do. But it seems to me that many people are forecasting more revolutionary change to happen much sooner that seems likely. My mid-sized public Library is only now discontinuing VHS tapes, and more from a lack of space than lack of patrons who still want them. We teach occasional workshops on Computers for Absolute Beginners — folks who can’t find the power switch — as well as addressing eBook concerns. The spectrum of users is wide and I believe will remain wide through 2020 and beyond. Books won’t go away, and only a portion of our base will ever use eBooks. Civic Engagement is something I think we all try to do now, and only the specifics of what we do and how we do it will evolve.

    I want to congratulate KCLS on their volunteer program, by the way. Our Friends Group has one monthly book sale to support our Museum Pass program and to contribute to Summer Reading. They simply decline to do anything more. We get occasional (generally under qualified) offers to volunteer, and we have two (at the moment) exceptional volunteers helping with local history projects. But certainly no corps of tutors — I’m jealous!

    Maybe it’s easier to envision a fabulous future if you are on the cutting edge and have amazing human and financial resources. Me — I expect more of the same, with small changes and lots more frustrations as we desperately try to be all things to all people.