The Library’s Future

Note: This was originally published on my LiveJournal and in the blitz of cross posting content over to WordPress I neglected to bring this over.  So I have backdated it to precede the post entitled TEDxLibrariansTO, because the content from this article is referenced in there. –ESR

The Library in America is in a state of evolution, and has been for decades, but more so now than ever.  The role of the library is the same as it has always been, to provide access to information and entertainment resources to the public.  But how that happens has been evolving and rapidly as a result of the internet.  Right now libraries across the country are in this very bizarre situation of having massive increases in usage and dwindling budgets.  That increase in usage stems from the volume of digital media that our society is pumping out, and people’s ability to access the online world.  This is not only changing the way we do our jobs at the library, but the services that we need to provide to the public.  In order to meet that challenge Libraries need to have the foresight to adapt or be considered superfluous to a municipality’s budget.  It’s that serious.

The American Library Association Office of Information Technology Policy released a policy brief for libraries entitled Confronting the Future: Strategic visions for the public library.  It identifies four spectra that every library needs to consider when in the process of strategic planning.  They are as follows:

Physical Libraries – Virtual Libraries
Individual Libraries – Community Libraries
Collection Libraries – Creation Libraries
Portal Libraries – Archive Libraries

All of these are a continuum between two extremes.  I can’t imagine a single library in the country, or any other country, that is wholly one side or the other on any of these continua.  We all fall somewhere in the middle to one side or the other.  But I think the trend lines for each of these has serious consequences in terms of what we do as a profession.  And the implication of this policy briefing, whether they explicitly stated it or not, is that most all libraries are moving to some degree from the left to the right of these spectra.  It’s a slow process, but this is really the vision of the future.  Take it as you will.

I believe that much of the work that I’m doing in the library is in keeping with this vision of the future.  So here’s a chunk of what I believe needs to be done.  These are kind of a list of ultimatums, but I think that they are critical issues that need speedier resolution than more people would imagine.  This is what’s happening NOW, and needs to be done NOW.

We need to train or fire tech-deficient librarians.  Period.

I hate to be harsh, but you cannot be useful to anyone if you cannot operate a computer at a level to help someone do the basic things that we need to do every day.  Everyone from the lowest paid cashier at the grocery store to the upper level management of the federal government require to post their resumes and job applications online.  If you can’t sit down and walk someone through a web form, and be able to on the spot diagnose problems with the computer hardware and software, then you are not serving our patrons.  But we’re not just talking about simple users; we’re also talking about complex user situations: using various forms of hardware (phones, game consoles, ebook readers, music players) in conjunction with a computer.  You’ve got to be able to explain all of that, and walk someone through the complex issues surrounding creating and modifying content for use online.  The folks who developed the 23 things are awesome, and I praise them for the work that they did.  But it is no longer just fun, or optional.  This is our world, and to not know these things is to be functionally illiterate.  I would go so far as to say that librarians should be required to have continuing education credits in order to maintain their professional standing.  Numerous other professions require it, and we should too.

The Digital Divide is Getting Worse, We Can’t Forget That

We’ve nearly stopped using the phrase “digital divide” in our daily conversations, but the reality is that it is even more problematic than ever.  As libraries make crucial budget decisions between purchasing physical and digital copies of books we are making decisions about which class of people can access this content.  This means that we are making class decisions about who can read something and who can’t.  Unless the library begins purchasing eReaders for people then there is no way that we can make this an equitable situation.  This is why we can’t move to a wholly virtual library any time soon.  Even if we were to give people the opportunity to load this content on public computers, the time spent on them is limited because computers themselves are limited resources that are valuable pieces of real estate.  Yes, more people have access to computers than before, but not necessarily high speed internet access.  So their ability to interact with the online world is limited even more.  Perhaps if we were able to combine this with print on demand then we could bridge the divide a little more concretely, but under current copyright law we’d be going to jail for that.  But don’t get me started on DMCA.


People Want to Connect and Play

People still crave company, and in today’s socially networked world, there is still a desire to see people face to face.  Lots of people talk about the “third place” that is neither home nor work where people can connect or disconnect as they wish.  The Library is one of those places.  However, what people are looking for is changing as well.  Sure there are people who are interested in learning how to use computers, but that’s not the heart of what people are looking for.  Entertainment outside of the mainstream is where it’s at, and probably where it’s going to stay. There are plenty of places that people can go and read, but there are fewer places where people can go and learn how to salsa dance, or knit, or write a novel, or learn about local history.  People are increasingly interested in niche things, and the library has always been a place to explore obscure ideas.  It is also becoming a place to explore those things with other people.  They need a place to experiment and play with things socially.

People Want to Contribute, and We Should Let Them

If Wikipedia has taught us anything it’s that people love to contribute to things.  There are 14.8 million Wikipedia users and 3.6 million articles.  It is the largest encyclopedia that has ever been created in history.  Wikipedia proves that people love sharing their information and their wisdom with other people, and they will do it for free, without hesitation.  Hell, they may even donate millions of dollars to support it!  People are posting millions of tweets a day.  People are sharing articles and photos on Facebook by the billions.  I don’t understand why so many libraries are resistant to the simplest things like allowing people to comment on their blogs or contribute reviews to the catalog.  By allowing users to add content to the library’s site and catalog gives them a sense of belonging more than ever.  They are a part of various online communities already. This increases the library’s value to the community and guarantees that when the choice for funding comes up that they will say absolutely yes.  We also need to realize that we don’t know everything.  There is a body of knowledge out there that is only available via crowdsourcing and to ignore it keeps us in the dark.

Libraries Need to Provide Value Added Content

There are zillions of content providers out there, but none of them have the kinds of resources that we have to provide perspective on the world we live in.  Our staff are content experts of various stripes, and we all know it.  Every library has a website, and that website needs to push content out to the world.  Through our own value added content we can promote the materials in the collection, shed light on little known resources, dredge up amazing bits of history and all without the burden of being beholden to advertisers, corporations, or political partisanship.  The New York Public Library is going so far as to creating interactive apps showcasing library resources from archival collections that people can play with on the iPad.  This is only the beginning of what we can do with what we have at our disposal and the experts that we have on staff.


Libraries Need to Lead the Fight against EULAs and DRM on eBooks

Anyone who has ever worked in purchasing academic journals knows that publishing companies are ruthless, money grubbing bastards.  Academic journal companies continue to jack up prices, making journals unaffordable in volume, which limits access to information to only those institutions who can afford to pay the blood money required to keep them.  And then we have to turn around and pay for the content again in database form! Why are we still perpetuating this bullshit?  And now, on the brink of the eBook revolution we’re getting into these questions about how much we can control the use of eBooks with our patrons, thus limiting the “damage” to the publishers bottom line.  Harper-Collins decided to pull a slick move and limit their DRM on their eBooks to have them self-destruct after 26 uses.  Not to mention that during contract renewals prices are going up. Well, the Kansas State Librarian called bullshit on that and pulled their contract with Overdrive entirely.  We need more people who are willing to stand up against this kind of poor business behavior, and flip the script.  She’s now looking to get the eBooks onto a new service of her own.  The more that we allow other companies to control the content that we’re providing our users, the more they will extort us for money that we don’t have, and then we have to start cutting content.  We’ve been down that road before.  We need to control our own eBooks, just as we control our own physical books.

I’m sure that after tomorrow I’m going to walk away with about a dozen more things that we need to be doing.  I’ll make sure and let you know.

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