Relevancy of Libraries in the Future

Earlier this week, the assistants on Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Daily Dish (rated one of Time’s Top 25 Blogs of 2009) sought to perform an experiment. They asked for readers to submit questions that would be posted to the Dish audience with follow-up entries showing the feedback received. This reminded me of a post by Peter Bromberg in Library Garden a couple of months ago. The part of Pete’s post that stuck with me was the last paragraph.

I worry every day about whether libraries will be relevant, three, five, or ten years from now. Unless we start allowing our customers to make decisions about their own personal data, AND start building systems that offer them a social networked experience based on their ability to selectively share their heretofore private info, I fear that libraries will grow increasingly irrelevant to our customers.

So, I took the theme of relevancy and crafted it into a question for the Dish.

What can the library do to stay relevant in the lives of the community? The methods of information delivery are increasing as well as the sheer volume of information resources. The quick and convenient Google search is replacing the more thoughtful human depth of a reference librarian’s answer. Librarians have transitioned from gatekeepers to guides, yet requests for our expertise in navigating the spectrum of information mediums and systems are in overall decline. There is an urge to offer more types of materials and services within the library, but there is also an enormous pull to provide greater forms of outreach through our website and other mobile technologies. What can we do to reverse this trend?
(While overall library usage is up due to the flagging economy, the most reported types of increased library use are borrowing materials, use of computers, and increased attendance to programs, specifically job related. This does not encompass my overall question.)

And they ended up using it. I was pretty surprised when it came across my Google Reader, but I was eager to see how it would be received. Later that day, they put up a post of selected feedback.

As a public librarian in a large metropolitan city, I can attest that our patronage is up…substantially now more than ever due to people seeking out resume advice, and our usage of computers has skyrocketed.  Which goes to show you one thing: people need libraries.

Regardless whether they own their computer, many patrons still need assistance in navigating the ‘Net, or advice on how to compose a resume, or where and how to use the templates available on word processing programs. Or they come for information on community resources to assist in their job search, or simply to discover free events in their community for their families.

They come for book discussions and debates, for senior "Wii" programs, for children’s play-reading times, for how to start your own business seminars, for teenage events that encourage good reading and learning habits, or simply to just enjoy reading the racks of magazines and newspapers knowing all the time they are all…free.

But they also read. A lot. Fiction and non-fiction books are still checked out. There is a warm, fuzzy comfortableness about taking home books and reading – especially escapist type of genres.

But what can a library do to stay relevant?  It still needs ‘place.’  A library was always a place first.  A haven to escape the hustle and bustle of their jobs, or even their family home. A place where every square inch of information and recreational reading is there at their fingertips. A place where librarians still answer reference questions and are available to help them navigate that almost-overwhelming mass of information that is thrown at them each day on the ‘Net, TV and radio and in newsprint.

In short, the library is still the most precious gift we give ourselves as a nation. Librarians are now more than the old-fashioned point-that-dewey-out individual-they are now information miners, resume makers, recreational reading advisors, gamers, events-planners for all ages.

The library is the still the best place in town.

And:

My inclination is to say that libraries could very well become central to communities — but that they’d have to shift emphasis from distributing information to editing it.

"Librarianship" is a skill that is only becoming more important. The question that the librarian seeks to answer is, I think, a defining one: How can I deal intelligently with this mass of information?

I think a great many of your readers go to the Daily Dish to answer that very question. They go as one goes to library: not only does the blog provide content (the analytic function of blogging), but it sorts through it (the curatorial function of blogging). Libraries do both. They provide content and they help people sort through it.

But as the former becomes more accessible, the latter becomes more important. Some ideas would be this. Libraries should focus on:

Community

  1. Hyperlocal news aggregation

Discovery

  1. Personalized reading lists and recommendation like "new books you might like" and "new articles you might like"

Editing

  1. Helping people create information consumption regiments
  2. Parsing paragraphs and quotes from books and aggregating them
  3. Collecting book reviews

(Emphasis mine.)

In reading it, the first commentator turned my present thinking on its head. Whereas I had been looking to expand services, to reach out to the patron population, and to widen our influence on the communities around my library, the commentator is looking inward towards what the library has going for it already. The draw of a destination is certainly something I see everyday in my library since we are situated in the residential community. We are lucky to have patrons who are within walking distance and come to the library as part of their daily routine. They read the paper, check the movie selection or email, and we know each other well enough to wave and greet each other by name. Maybe I have a destination already and I just need to tap into that vibe and capitalize on it.

The second commentator reminds me of a theme I’ve heard since I started my MLS degree a couple of years back. There is an awful lot of information out there, the likes of which that the majority of people had not previously seen in their lifetime. My generation grew up on cable television, but we came to age in the dawn of the internet. Perhaps we are more accustomed to the increasing abundance of resources that are available, but there are those before my generation who are not. Even now, there are those in the coming generation who are not able to edit it as well. I’m not saying that my age group (early 30’s) is better adapted to do so, but I will say that we straddle times before and after the digital revolution. 

I can personally say that I remember the library when it had card catalogs, when it got the first line of OPACs, and when it went online with its catalogs. These are huge leaps that were done as I came to age; in other words, as I grew, information technology grew with me. Perhaps it is time for the library to reclaim this essence of destination, a place where people want to be to enrich their lives. Librarians become guides and interpreters, to distill the desires of the patrons, to provide intellectual nourishment, and to rescue them from the sensory overload of the dense information quagmire.

Our relevancy may depend on it.

Cross posted to LISNews