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

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.


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:


  1. Hyperlocal news aggregation


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


  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.


Taxonomy upgrade extras: 


"As a public librarian in a large metropolitan city..." It doesn't matter what we think, it only matters what our communities think. If we are perceived as relevant by our users, and even our non-users, then we will be supported. Marketing, advertising, outreach, and so on... it's how people will know we are relevant.

I do like this thought:
"Maybe I have a destination already and I just need to tap into that vibe and capitalize on it. "

I just might be lucky enough to have a destination already and not have to build the destination brand from scratch. There is some niche branding that I could do as this town has a ton of community pride. Although, even two years after the library reopened from renovations (after four years of being closed), people still say things like "I didn't know you were here!" or "I didn't know you guys offered this or that!" We have a visibility issue that we need to resolve to reclaim our full destination status.

If anything kills public libraries in the future that'll be it!

re: "AND start building systems that offer them a social networked experience..."

J Effing C! the library IS a social effing network.

"...based on their ability to selectively share their heretofore private info, I fear that libraries will grow increasingly irrelevant to our customers."

so libraries will only survive if we cease to protect patron data and give that responsibility back to the patron, the same patron who can't figure out when to pay his credit card bill... so we'll have them sign some 30-page agreement about how we might use their personal data now, although we could change the agreement later based on market conditions and the value of the data....

again, these so-called solutions for saving libraries will only hasten the destruction of libraries. libraries are social networks already... people go to libraries for inner-networking, not to broadcast their latest bowel movements to the world (although if you've been in our library bathrooms lately, you'd disagree-- who is that bastard who keeps writing on the bathroom stall door, "When did I eat corn?")...

I suppose so, but it seems like they're a different type, no? (bathroom stall doors aside) I'm not really sure how I'd define the differences, but they seem different somehow.

People don't care about privacy and personal data, go ahead, ask someone, they might say they care, but I guarantee you they never read or sent back that privacy statement and opout they got from their credit card company. They SHOULD, but they don't, so that's not something that will scare 99% of people away.

Now of course IANAPL (I am not a public librarian).

If you followed the link to Library Garden to the original post and the subsuquent discussion, what Pete is proposing is that library systems be more open to allowing patrons to control their own data. In the same way that Facebook allows people to set their levels of privacy, form groups, and make connections with friends, he is thinking of a library automation system in which a patron could give permissions to share whatever information they want with other people. It is a idea that I heard more about at NJLA 2009 in terms of user generated content, where someone can take information from different sources and construct their own mashup. I think the opening of patron information for their own use in connecting to others with similar interests would be a boon for that library and reinforce the community feeling.

Now, legally, in NJ, I thought there might be some barriers. Namely, the state statute that controls library records and limits their disclosure to three cases: judicial subpoena, normal course of library business, and request by the patron. In my non-legal opinion, the law would need to be reworded for the last condition in order to make it easier for patrons to open up their records for sharing. I would also want to ensure that the library carries no liability and make procedures for a patron to request information sharing fast and simple.

As Karen Hyman said at the NJLA keynote, the time of the Library Mommy is over. I'd rather not spend my days here at the library telling people what they can't do, what we can't find, and what we are unable or unwilling to do on their part. I want my career to move forward as a guide, a mentor, an information expert, and a friend. So what if a patron can't figure out their credit card bill and they want to share their reading lists with the world? It's not my job to judge them. It's also not my job to make sure that they pay their bills, take their medications, or shower in the morning. Personal responsibility is alive and well when it is allowed to flourish. My responsibility to get them the right information, whether its a book or an article or the phone number to the local bakeries.

Libraries are social networks already, but there are many things we can do to improve on that.

"what Pete is proposing is that library systems be more open to allowing patrons to control their own data. "

we've already agreed that patrons don't understand levels of privacy... what happens with sites like Facebook is that the customers lose much of their privacy then complain and get it back... but libraries say to their patrons, "you have complete privacy with no option to forfeit it." why is the library model bad for the future of libraries?

we can offer patron book ratings linked to our catalog, but we *shouldn't* offer our patrons the option to link their reviews to their real identities... (IMO).. or the option to share their borrowing/reading/internet history with anyone...friends, enemies, boy scouts, google, ....

but libraries say to their patrons, "you have complete privacy with no option to forfeit it." why is the library model bad for the future of libraries?

In NJ, a patron has the right to instruct the library to disclose their information to anyone. Whether it is a history of checkouts, holds, or whatever, the patron has that right. Now, are my patrons aware of that right? Probably not.

If you want to play games of patron paternalism, that's your prerogative. Go on, protect them from all the ills of the world that you perceive that their privacy is threatened by. I simply don't care for the "I know best about your privacy and I'm going to keep you in the dark about your rights" attitude on display here. I'd rather empower those patrons who want more from their library experience using the materials and data we have on hand. I'm lighting a candle for them while you are telling them how awesome the darkness is. It's just not right.

in "Godwin's Rule for Discussing the Future of Libraries," the first person to use the word "empower" wins the argument. Touché.

I didn't win anything. An argument requires two opposing viewpoints. Lamenting about the potential of working towards something new and better is not an argument. That's whining. Also, saying "no you shouldn't" without articulating a basis for saying so is not an argument. That's being contrary.

Quoting Goodwin's Rules and trying to misapplying it here confirms to me that you are not actually serious about having a discussion about this topic. I can accept being proven wrong, but I cannot accept people who don't bring their A game to a serious discussion.

I'm intrigued by the 2nd commentator's vision of librarians as content editors. I know there's an aspect to this that's purely technological, i.e., we can create applications that personalize the user experience (e.g., a catalog that could note past borrowing/browsing and make reader's advisory recommendations accordingly).

But I sense something more here, something involving personal "added value." And, frankly, librarians making qualitative, values-laden decisions about materials is pretty much a sea change for most of us. We prefer for others (e.g., book reviewers) to make those judgments, and we actually prefer that no one make them --vis, intellectual freedom. If librarians actually start sharing opinions about things, we'll be something very different from what we've been in the past. We'll be making professional judgements about books and videos and such. Interesting....