Twenty years ago at the 1995 General Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), Chris Batt of the Croydon Libraries in the UK gave a talk on the library of the future. This was his prophetic conclusion:
“What are the implications of all for this [the Internet] for the future of public libraries? … The answer is that while we cannot be certain about the future for our services, we can and should be developing a vision which encompasses and enriches the potential of the Internet. If we do not do that then others will; and they will do it less well.”
So from the relatively early days of the Internet – three years before Google was even founded – libraries have been warned about the challenge to their future.
Although many librarians have been innovative in various ways since then, it is fair to say that during those twenty years many players have been offering services that were once the exclusive function of libraries.
As a headline a month ago in the Washington Post put it: “When Google Is Your Librarian And Starbucks Your WiFi, Do We Still Need Public Libraries?” (The answer was yes, but clearly enough people think otherwise that the editors thought the question was worth asking.)
Libraries have been challenged even as a source of collected books, with the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service and similar services from Oyster and Scribd over the last year. [Skip past the pictures to continue reading.]
For roughly $120 per year, a person could have access to a very large collection of books. It would be interesting to see what libraries could do if they had a similar amount of money to work with. But they don’t.
The most recent year in which national statistics were collected about public libraries is 2012. Earlier this year (2015), the US Government’s Institute of Museums and Library Services issued its final analysis of that data. IMLS noted that public library operating expenditures were $35.47 per person – and, of course, that’s for more than just offering e-books.
Of course, libraries are not alone in facing change. All of us do.
In addition to the Internet revolution we already deal with, there are several technology trends whose impact is only beginning — machine intelligence and analytics, a ubiquitous interface to the Internet and high-quality visual conversations that will finally enable the virtual world to replicate the trust, the serendipity and the nature of normal face-to-face human communications.
These technology trends intertwine with and reinforce trends in the economy and society – the transition in employment to a post-industrial, digital economy where many people will earn their living providing knowledge-based services and intangible products; innovation as the competitive edge in the knowledge economy; the increase in the number of people who are both producers and consumers of content; the resulting requirement for cost-effective lifelong learning for adults.
As with all change, while one part of your world is nibbled away, other opportunities open up. So it is with libraries.
This is the background, the context, for the Aspen Institute’s creation of a working group on libraries (of which I’m a member) and its report “Rising To The Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries.” I’ve written about the report itself before. [Skip past the pictures to continue reading.]
As part of the effort to disseminate the ideas in the report, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the New Hampshire Library Trustees Association last week. I then joined with Maureen Sullivan, former President of the American Library Association and long-time consultant in the field, to run two workshops for the trustees.
The gist of my talk was straightforward. Libraries do not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. They need to be embedded in their communities, which means that they need to understand and respond to how their patrons’ lives are changing. Library leaders need to understand how each trend will have an impact on libraries.
Libraries need to lay the foundation for where they need to be in the future. Not to put too fine a point on it, but continuing just doing a good job with things as they are now is insufficient and unsustainable.
While the Aspen report notes the continuing importance of the library building, it is more for a future role than merely the warehousing of books. Moreover, successful libraries services can no longer be constrained by the walls of the library building. Every space in the community should be considered to be virtually part of the library. The library should be everywhere – physically and virtually.
Librarians need to provide access and intelligent guidance not just to their local collection, but to a national, eventually international, and fluid combination of materials. Indeed, the global digital network makes possible an emerging model of networked libraries that promotes economies of scale and broadens each library’s reach.
As Maureen Sullivan has stated:
“With a nationally networked platform, library and other leaders will also have more capacity to think about the work they can do at the national level that so many libraries have been so effective at doing at the state and local levels.”
Libraries can be the central institution of the knowledge/innovation economy, but to do so they must take the lead in helping their communities deal with the future so that both the libraries and their communities flourish.
© 2015 Norman Jacknis