February 17, 2018

Watching the Future: New activism tells people what libraries offer | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIThe future of the American public library is taking shape. I see it in all kinds of libraries. The public, politicians, and local and national media are now noticing the relevance and central role of these libraries. These institutions are delivering a trusted set of up-to-date programs and services and that has earned a far more positive public and political reaction than the one enjoyed by most other agencies of the local, state, and federal governments.

It is exciting to see public libraries revise their mission, materials, and services to help all citizens—from the very young to seniors—get a handle on the latest information technologies, the new health-care system, and fresh ways to learn, parent, and teach. Children are loving the library, and it is beginning to win over that middle group, young adults and young families who come together or solo to one-on-one sessions for activities and services that help master issues at work or school and address life’s challenges.

I love one library’s “Little Clickers” program, which shows young children and parents how to master technologies together. I was impressed by the urban library that added more English as a Second Language programs taught in the new languages spoken in the neighborhood and added a tutorial on how to get what you need from the city bureaucracy, especially the schools. I like the experimental kitchen recently built at one urban library. I’ve attended cultural and informational programs that have exploded everywhere. I’ve watched movies and heard authors and music, along with programs and services on job hunting, now with added personal sessions. I’ve seen information professionals out in the stacks and reading rooms helping folks find materials online and on shelves, discover answers to their questions, and borrow what they need. There are hundreds of Maker spaces, lots of 3-D printers, and a new willingness to try to meet any citizen’s information need.

One key element in all of this is a responsiveness to newly expressed community desires driven by careful attention to what various citizens and constituencies have requested—or even demanded. One urban library has assigned librarians as personal learning advisors with a “web interface” on which patrons enter their learning interest and staff claim the questions, work on draft responses, report, and add it all to a database of resources. The citizen ends up with a learning plan displayed online, including recommended materials, classes, and instructors.

These libraries have added a new activism to their efforts to make people aware of what they now offer, and it is working all over America. This activism is undoubtedly spurred by years of austerity and low support and a certain public indifference or quiet acceptance of the old public library and what they think it does. With the arrival of the digital age librarians realized that traditional users and their long-standing reservoir of support were, indeed, “traditional” and might not be aware of the new society or the changes it has brought to every organization, agency of government, and industry. It took ramped up energy and action to inform the public that libraries are an integral part of the transformation of society, and the librarians work hard to make everyone aware of all they now have to offer.

Some call it marketing, others advocacy, still others simply publicity and promotion. But everywhere it has a vitality, a creativity, and updated ways to make everyone in town see what is going on at the public library. Media at all levels are noticing and writing about it, from the august New York Times to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

My favorite recent example of this attention was in the editorial in the January 25 Toledo Blade by David Kushma, the paper’s editor. Kushma told of a recent visit by Blade editors to see the array of new materials and services at the Toledo–Lucas County Public Library: “The library’s description of itself as ‘a beacon of community engagement, experimentation, and expression,’ is, if anything, understated. Let’s never take it for granted.”

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. And Library Journal tells people what its vendor partners offer! Thanks, John.

  2. I have been a library patron for twenty years now, since the moment five-year-old me got her first library card. Over the years, I have written a lot about library advocacy and have worked to spread the word of the myriad benefits that libraries provide the community and society as a whole. More than ever, though, I have become aware of the trend in libraries, and it parallels what this article mentioned.

    One of the most noteworthy aspects of the way libraries are going is that they are better able to help readers (young, especially) to cultivate a love for learning. They do this with a wide array of methods, and incorporating the newest technological advances is the most effective way in which they go about doing this. I, for one, am excited to see what the future holds.