March 16, 2018

International, Interactive Innovation | Next Library 2017

Engagement was the name of the game at the Next Library conference held in Aarhus, Denmark, June 11–14. Some 350 librarians from 36 countries gathered at the city’s Dokk1 library to learn and continue to build a global network. Via high intensity, participatory programming such as that offered by creativity expert Christian Byrge and in breakout sessions, attendees were very much part of the program.

Among other highlights, Canadian Peter MacLeod presented a vision for intensified community engagement in civic life, and put four ideas for libraries into the conversation. A number of Ignite sessions took quick dips into a wide range of topics: the post-earthquake recovery and reinvention of library services in Christchurch, New Zealand; progress on connecting libraries and education in the United States; re-envisioning customer engagement with games in Singapore; and much more.

Attendees could opt in to being tracked throughout Next Library via a personal beacon placed inside the name tag holder to educate organizers on how attendees actually use the meeting itself. A full 250 attendees participated. The project illustrated the promise of “smart libraries”—also explored in one of the repeated breakout sessions—wherein data is gathered and used educate us about how patrons use buildings, thus inform or inspire new services and nontraditional approaches to library work.

A team from Denmark’s DTU Library asked participants to imagine the sorts of data we have or can gather and what they tell us, as well as how technology or design deployed in a space can encourage certain practices by patrons. Alexandra Institute’s Kaj Grønbæk offered  background on Dokk1 experiments with “crowd sensing” via Bluetooth and cellphones connected to Wi-Fi to live map activity in the space. Jason Griffey, currently a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University (and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker), offered more context from his work on his Knight Challenge–winning Measure the Future project. He described the effort as a sort of Google Analytics for your building and stressed the focus on privacy implications: for instance, learning how space is used, rather than particulars about the people using it.

Radical inclusion and innovation

Discussion of “innovation,” and how to foster it, was nonstop. In a dialog-driven keynote HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands made the case for engaging in a new level of inclusion to really enable innovation. “We have been looking for innovation in ourselves, but maybe that’s the wrong place,” she said. Referring to Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle as her bible right now, Princess Laurentien stressed the importance of real dialog with open questions—those that aren’t framed to support or reinforce preconceived solutions. “Adults can’t do that easily because they often put a little bit of the answer in the question,” she added.

She urged attendees to find the right question, and then organize a process to find answers—doing this well leads to what she called “organized chaos” and real insights. “All you need to understand is that innovation is not about sharing what you know, but what you do not know.”

In a similar vein, J. Philipp Schmidt, the director of learning innovation at the MIT Media Lab, addressed the benefits of hacking and supporting a culture that challenges the status quo. “If you want to see innovation in your community, you have to encourage people to be disobedient or at least to break the rules to create something new,” he said. “If you really want to innovate, you have to be comfortable with that.” To that end, the Media Lab is currently looking forward to sharing the winner of the new $250,000 Disobedience Award, to be announced on July 21 (see He later added that hacking can be seen as an act of kindness, noting that “it’s underappreciated that people only hack on things that they care about.”

Libraries, Schmidt emphasized, are more suited than schools or universities to this type of work because “you can’t fail at library.” Libraries have the flexibility required, and “thoughtful staff anchored in navigating knowledge,” as well as a strong service mission that “keeps the innovation real.” He pointed to the Maker movement as an example. With some 1,500 Maker projects in U.S. libraries, he said, “that’s an infrastructure. You can think about creating innovation to make change at the network level.”

Schmidt encouraged librarians to engage in the Media Lab’s Public Library Innovation Exchange, noting that “many projects at the lab would benefit from connection to libraries.”

Global connections

A key voice in the global library arena, Deborah Jacobs, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Global Libraries Initiative, reflected on the continued wind down of the foundation’s investment in libraries and the effort to “leave the library field strong.” She shared five major themes. First, “progress comes through collaboration,” she said. “The library field is fragmented, in the U.S. we don’t work together. We come together, but we don’t reach out and say, ‘we’re thinking about x, and how about y?’” Second: Change means developing leaders. Third, “Support for libraries will grow with clear alignment with community needs.” Fourth: “We need to create a more diverse funding base,” she said. It “lets us be more agile.” Fifth, “Show your worth through impact, measuring impact on people’s lives.”

Jacobs referenced several takeaways from the conference itself, of which the foundation is a sponsor and partner, and called on the global group to “remember our responsibility to build democracy through our libraries” she said, emphasizing a key theme. “The best way ahead is for libraries to work together in a united and unified way.”

Making such global connections was part and parcel of participating in Next Library. In a concrete step toward expanding the reach of that network, in the mix among the attendees were seven winners of scholarships offered by Next Library and EIFL (Electronic Information for Libraries) who were chosen from over 100 applicants.

The Next Library team made a number of videos throughout the convening which can be seen here: A Next Library satellite conference is currently in the works for Sept. 12–15, 2018, to be held in Berlin.

Box: In addition, Princess Laurentien presented the inaugural recipient of the international Joy of Reading award to the FunDza Literacy Trust of South Africa. The winner was elected from a pool of six finalists, down from 31 nominations from 16 countries. The award, which comes with a $10,000 prize sponsored by Systematic, will be given every other year.  (A short video with FunDza Executive Director Mignon Hardie is here.)

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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