Re: Nothing is the Future

This is a reaction post of “Nothing is the Future” by Wayne Bivens-Tatum (Academic Librarian).

While my astute professional peer makes excellent points concerning the hyperbole in library technology trends, I feel that there is an excellent lesson to his post: while librarians can and should act as leaders for their patrons, they should also be followers and listeners. I see librarians as bridging the gap between the past and future, interacting on a medium of the patron’s choosing. While we should have an eye to emerging technologies to gauge their development and adoption by society as a whole, it behooves us to remain mindful of the established and accepted communication mediums. Yes, there are marvels of the digital age and certainly things that librarians should be aware of[1], but it is folly to set sights constantly on the horizon to the detriment of what currently exists and works.

In following, it is not for our patrons to take us to a brand new technologies, but to remind us of the merits of existing ones. As Mr. Bivens-Tatum simply states, people still interact with the library using letters, telephone, and other last established technologies. There should be no rush to usher to declare these mediums dead in the favor of what holds the current fancy of the technological vanguard. In listening to what patrons want and use, we are performing the most basic function of the library: giving people what they actually asking for. Simply put, it is the act of matching the demand that the patrons have articulated to us as a wanted and desired material or service.

To this end, my take on Mr. Bivens-Tatum’s blog title would change it to “People are the Future”. In the greater picture, our existence is constantly in their hands. At the local level, they will always (hopefully) tell us what can be done to meet their needs. Whether this is a mobile app or extended weekend hours, only the community that we serve can answer that question. People are the future for libraries, for they are the ones who dictate our services, programs, collections, and, ultimately, our fates.


[1] Personally, I don’t take all of the Library 101 RTK list literally. I don’t think that librarians need to know how Hulu works (to use the most infamous example), but the important takeaway is that this presents a trend of television on demand via the internet (something very worthy of notice as all forms of television and movie content make their way to online). Same goes for a lot of the named products, sites, and items on that list. The 101 RTK list gives an excellent heads-up to some of the emerging trends in information and communication.

14 thoughts on “Re: Nothing is the Future

  1. I like “people are the future.” It’s a more positive way of saying no *thing** is the future. The point of adapting and trying out new communication technologies is so that we don’t have to tell library users they can only communicate with us in ways that we feel comfortable with. We should be there for them, whether they feel most comfortable with handwritten letters or text messages.

    • Although, I think we should draw the line on smoke signals.

      In all seriousness, I’d also like to point out that libraries should not be completely beholden to all mediums. We have been weeding out our cassette collection due to poor circulation (even though I will see patrons with walkmans; yes, really). If you think about it from the large scale, cars are no longer being built with cassette players and music stores have (in large, save for some small specialty or mom ‘n pop) dropped cassettes from their inventories. There is a inflection point where the medium doesn’t exhibit enough value for its continued support and use.

  2. Agreed – I really like “people are the future.” And it’s true – a local library really needs to NOT focus so much on national trends (whether that’s Netflix or Harry Potter). Much better to be watching and listening to the surrounding community, see what THOSE trends are … and respond appropriately.

    Nice post!

    • I’ve always liked the phrase “leading from the rear”. For libraries, I think it is a combination of meeting community needs and offering what we hope is the next logical step. An example would be that, in offering face to face reference service, we offer reference via phone, chat, email, and text (all of the current popular communication mediums). Likewise, with books, we offer e-books, audio books, books in other languages, and books on MP3 players.

      It’s as if we have our own wonder wheel (much like the Google visual search option), but at times, people get focused on the parts on the outside rather than what lays in the center.

  3. Good post Andy. Just curious. I had written about the librarians’ comunity focus on the future myself at From the Bell Tower, my LJ column, just a few days before Wayne’s post. I wouldn’t say they are the same, but I think I give an added dimension to the disucssion. Had you not seen my column? It typically appears with each weekly issue of LJ’s Academic Libary Newswire – and perhaps you are not able to follow the academic library publications from LJ. My point is that librarians should look within to prepare for the future, and do so in a way that is relevant to their environment. I do caution that it is important to be thinking about the future, and what actions one can take. If you also read some of my posts at Designing Better Libraries you’ll see that I’ve been writing about the important of focusing on a few basic things as we go into the future – and none of them are technology based (building relationships, creating meaning for the users, taking a “totality” view of library operations). See more at:

    • Steven,

      I do read your blog over on LJ as it helps to see commentary from the academic library field. (And I enjoyed your presentations at Pres4Lib2009, so I tend to keep track of you and others who presented that day.) In re-reading your post to freshen my memory, it seems to me to be an affirmation of convergent evolution of thought; we come to the same sorts of conclusion somewhat independent of each other.

      Now, whether this fuels the so-called echo chamber of online library thought, that’s another story. However, I’m more interested in what it will take to get the ideas implemented. We are certainly a people business and that business thrives on relationships: personal, political, community, and cause. I don’t think we’ve lost that focus at the individual level, but our online commentary has made it seem that we have.

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  5. I’ve never found “patron-centric” sentiments fully satisfying. Certainly, libraries should be responsive to their patrons. In the case of government-funded libraries that’s not just good policy, but essential to good government.

    But still, it misses something and, at the risk of being called a snob, a futurist and a hack, it needs saying.

    Snob: Libraries exist in part to educate people. Often that means helping them to learn things they know they don’t know—to provide answers to their questions. But libraries also exist to help patrons to know things they don’t know they don’t know—to help them frame better questions, and expand the sort of questions they’re asking.

    Futurist: Giving your patrons what they want is reactive. You’ve also got to be looking at what they will want. Sometimes that’s just being ahead of the curve. Sometimes it means ignoring what your patrons want, because it’s a blind alley.

    A humorous thought: Without library obstructionists, libraries could change when it was needed, and not need library futurists to tell them what was coming!

    Hack: Libraries don’t exist to perpetuate jobs for librarians. But there’s value in perpetuating libraries even so. We need library futurists to tell us when the future is working against libraries. So, for example, patrons want ebooks, but current ebook pricing and distribution models for libraries are a serious “down elevator” for libraries and for library values like privacy and free speech. If libraries don’t stand up for something better—even if that means refusing to give patrons ebooks now—they’re going to find themselves backed into a corner. And you can’t give your patrons what they want if you’re in a corner. Hmm.

    In sum, don’t give your patrons what they want. Do a little bit better!

    • Tim, I agree with your points. I think some of what we are talking about could be remedied by teaching librarians (current & in school now) some basic marketing principles and techniques. While well funded libraries can hire marketing people to do it full time, I believe this represents a minority of total libraries.

      The last focus group report I read for my system (circa 2007) talked about what different groups of patrons thought of the library. (I wish I could find the report for the purposes of this post, but I think the desk pixies made it into bedding.) While it was informative to get opinions and examine requests of patrons, it did not ask the groups to place priorities on them. I think there is a lot of contextual vacuum that exists in our basic patron surveys. We ask people what they like or want, but we don’t ask the important follow-up of how much they want it. In other words, sure, they wanted the library to have or do things, but there was no mention of the importance or level of desire to them.

      I guess the real question is, what do we do to resolve this?

  6. I’d get with Tim if we can change that last line to “Give your patrons what they want AND do a little better.” I think we can educate with being paternalistic snobs, and THAT is our best strategic choice — the one that will help us survive and thrive.

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