April 23, 2018

Back to the Future: When Visioning Pays Off | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerEmpty moving boxes perch on filled ones all through LJ’s offices. One of them now contains a record I’ll look forward to referencing in another nine years. As our staff gear up to move to a new space this month, I focused on weeding old files—paper documents that had migrated from one workspace to the next. Packing can be a process of discovery. Among the fossils excavated was a blue folder holding the agenda and notes from a think tank, “2020 Vision: Idaho Libraries Futures Conference,” held in Boise in August 2005. The theme: “Challenges of the Future.”

The notes, filling a 50-sheet legal pad in a tight black-ink scrawl, capture some of the thoughts expressed by an engaged group of approximately 40 people over three days of brainstorming. They provide a view into what library leaders thought the future we’re now living in would look like (or, “the past future,” as a colleague put it). Seen via hindsight almost a decade later, they anticipate many of the pressures now in play in our communities and libraries. More important, the effort at the think tank has paid off over time for libraries across Idaho.

“We are still using the 2020 vision that came out of that,” Idaho State Librarian Ann Joslin told me by phone the day before we each departed for the American Library Association annual conference in Las Vegas. “I’ve used it most recently with my presentation to the joint budget committee. It has stood up really well in terms of describing what we want Idaho libraries to be like.”

The vision statement reads:

Idaho libraries are the nexus of global information, innovative services and community, enabling us to sustain our history, empower our present, and create our future.

This was developed during an intense transition for libraries in the early 2000s, Joslin noted, comparing the meeting to a prior visioning session held in 1998. “I remember that during the think tank itself, I felt that there was a much more serious, dare I even say threatened, feeling that came from those participants that we need to keep up or disappear,” she said. “Libraries had the traditional idea that everyone knew that libraries were good.” Then, budgets were cut in the early 2000s, and “they had to cope with the idea that not everyone understood the value of libraries,” she added. “The need to advocate was new.”

Joslin pointed out two elements in the vision statement: libraries as the “nexus” and the emphasis on community.

“At the local level, one of the things that has come to the top is the strategy of being a part of the community rather than apart from it,” she said. “It’s a theme at the national level as well.” She noted that community-building fits with national efforts emphasizing the concept of libraries as anchor institutions.

“We see community building as a fairly big umbrella that covers a number of things that libraries need to do to be more visible to get more community support,” Joslin said, and “to be more effective in meeting community needs.”

Less tangible than a written statement, but so important, a culture of creativity that embraces the iterative nature of effective change has emerged in its wake. Statewide initiatives such as the creation of SPLAT (Special Libraries Action Team; splat.lili.org) help fuel innovation as a direct outgrowth of the 2020 visioning. Joslin also noted that this mind-set influenced a turn toward digital inclusion, the state’s significant Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant, and successful pilots with Maker spaces.

This spirit went viral. “Eventually, coming out of there…was more optimism, more creativity at the local level,” Joslin said. “There was more willingness to embrace technology and try it out and, resulting from all of those things, higher visibility of libraries in their communities.”

There’s always a lot of future-talk in libraryland, sometimes sparking what one might call future fatigue. But as Idaho’s experience shows, these exercises can pay off. The next time you wonder if it’s worth it to try to see what lies ahead and what we should make of it, just do it. “Your image of the future influences choices now,” said Glen Hiemstra, founder of futurist.com, as he kicked off the 2005 think tank. “If you want to change an enterprise, change the image of its future.”


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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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