Notes of a Binge Thinker

Thoughts from NTLP's Executive Director

Identity Crisis Series: New Directions for Libraries in the Next Decade

Denial is a dangerous, yet comforting thing.  We can see the writing on the wall and turn away from it to make us feel better about any situation.  For my column this month, I am exploring what directions libraries will take in the next decade.  My thoughts on this subject are based on my exploration of the subject during my identity crisis series.  I hope that libraries will look at this identity crisis series as a tool when developing their long range plans for their libraries over the next ten years.

Here are some of the statements about libraries I have read in the media in the last year.

  • Library’s budget has been cut.
  • Library’s hours have been reduced.
  • Are libraries essential to a community?

Of course, I have also heard the following from many library directors.

  • Our circulation is up and continues to go up every year.
  • We have more people coming through our doors everyday then we ever have.
  • People keep telling me how important our library is to them.

There is a definite disconnect between what our city/county/school administrators feel about libraries and the value libraries bring to their respective communities.  I think this is apparent in what is happening in our largest library system at the moment.  The city of Fort Worth has reduced resources available to the library.  Two branches are in danger of being shut down completely next spring.  Yet, the library opened a new branch this last weekend and I am told that the library had long lines of patrons waiting to take advantage of the various library services.  The library staff worked consistently all day without a break.  Although it seems the  Fort Worth City Council does not see the library as being essential, the people standing in line to check out materials on Saturday would most likely disagree; a prime example of this lack of understanding on the library’s role in the community.

What should a library do to help capture its value?  First and foremost, the library needs to do some comprehensive long range planning with all stakeholders.  It is vital that the library includes city/county/school officials in the planning process. In this way, the people making the funding decisions can see the value of the library from the beginning versus library administration having to justify the library’s existence at a later point in time.

As part of this long range planning process, the library should fully explore the many different roles it can take on by introducing them to the stakeholders to determine the needs/wants of the community.  I want to distinguish between the needs and wants here.  To me, a need is an inherent role the library plays in the community.  For example, the library will always be the beacon for an informed citizenry.  There is no other institution better positioned to ensure that democracy continues to thrive in this country by giving patrons free and objective information about the issues affecting their lives.  I define this as a need.  The community needs someone to level the playing field for all citizens when it comes to information.  A want is more of a passing fancy for a community.  For example, videos/DVDs are something that has become very popular in most libraries.  People want another option in the community when it comes to recreation so many libraries are providing for this want.  However, there are other recreation choices for the community.  If a library would suddenly stop providing DVDs, the community demand could still be met because of these other choices.  Why is this distinction important?  Because when it comes to making difficult funding decisions, the city/county/school officials are going to be asking this very question.  What essential services does a library provide in the community that cannot be realized anywhere else by some other private or public institution?  Hopefully, many leaders will see the community needs for the library and realize that providing for the community wants are an added value.

Flexibility is also a key to good long range planning.  The community wants will most likely change on a regular basis.  We should include language in our long range plan to help accommodate for the quickly changing wants of our community.  In the DVD example, we started out offering video tapes to our patrons, then it was DVDs and with the advent of streaming movies from the Internet, this will most likely become the future want of the community.  Will the community want to have the library stream movies to its households?  This is the type of question that should be explored for all library services.

We have focused on many different possible roles for libraries during this year.  When doing the long range planning for your library, take a moment to look at each role carefully.

Books – No matter how hard we try, our brand is still the “book place.”  It is our community identity.  As books become more widely available in electronic format, where do we stand as the “book place”?  Do we continue to emphasize this role by funneling more and more funds into the purchase of them? Or do we start to put more resources into the other services.  What does your community need when it comes to books?  What does it want from the library when it comes to books?  Do you migrate to ebooks?  All of these questions will need to be explored.

Reference – Is reference still needed in libraries?  With the glut of information providers available today on the Internet, what is the role of libraries when it comes to being the information providers?  What is needed from the community when it comes to information?  What does the community want from the library when it comes to reference?  Is the reference desk still needed?

Print Media – What about the role of newspapers in the community?  I have already written about the need for a library to be the great equalizer in the community, but is there a role for libraries to also be the provider of information when it comes to local issues that matter to our everyday lives?

Community Gathering Place – Will the library become more of a social place for people to gather and network versus a book place?  Is the library space adequate to providing for this need in the community?

Lifelong learning – What about services like literacy instruction, adult programming, and other lifelong learning activities in the library?  How we allocate our resources to accommodate for these programs/services?  What kind of resources will be needed to accommodate for this possible change in focus?

Digital Services/Digitalization – Will the library continue to offer Public Access Computers to the community?  Is this a want or a need?  If it is a need, then how do you justify this to your city/county/school to convince them to provide local funds for the IT maintenance and upgrade?  We have always been the consumer of content.  Is there a place for us to be content creators?  Do we scan in our content and provide analysis of the content through the attached metadata?

Youth – Do we continue to focus our efforts and resources on providing youth services? To what extent do we provide for youth’s educational needs?  What role will we play alongside the schools in our communities?

Once you have a good grasp on what programs and services you want to provide to your community, the next step is to determine how to gauge your effectiveness and communicate this to your city/county/school.  Is circulation of materials really a true indication of the value you bring to your community?  We need to focus on how we translate what we do on a daily basis in terms that our decision makers can understand to assist them in making the important decisions.  I truly believe if we can figure out a better way to present our value, the disconnect between our reality and their perception will be bridged.

We are moving towards new horizons for libraries.  We need to keep our core values intact, but at the same time realize that we might need to offer these core values in a different way.  Hopefully, this identity crisis series has opened a few eyes and the dangerous denial I have been seeing over this past year will begin to evaporate.   Are libraries going to disappear this decade?  I don’t think so, but we need to see the writing on the wall and stop turning away from it.  Let’s stand up to the challenge and be strong!

This month on ntlrs.org, we are looking at how technology will shape the future of libraries.  Our guest columnist is Paul Waak, our Libraries for Literacy coordinator and library consultant.  In it, he explores how technology is a tool that libraries can utilize for their own evolution.  Please take a few moments to read this thought provoking article.

Everyone have a very happy Thanksgiving!

Read the rest of my column…

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Written by amwlkaw

November 8, 2010 at 9:38 am

Posted in Misc

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