Public libraries have long been considered to be on the brink of irrelevancy and extinction, fending off assertions that Google would replace librarians – the original “search engines” – or that eBooks would replace print books. Thus, it’s easy for the technophiles to imagine that libraries as “repositories” would no longer be necessary.
Nevertheless, libraries were fundamentally designed to evolve and transform into places and platforms of innovation and collaboration. What sets libraries apart from most organizations and institutions is that the public library is definitively the last bastion of democracy where anyone can go to expand their knowledge; network with a diverse group of people; engage in a virtual reality experience (that without the library may otherwise be out of reach); learn new skills; enjoy art and entertainment, and so much more. Essentially, the public library is a community anchor, the center of the wheel that drives the quintessential catalyst for social change. The fact that the public library already maintains that critical currency of trust in the community is a key element to its sustainable future.
The key to creating a vibrant future for public libraries is the power of place (the library as the community anchor), platform (the library providing resources, programs and materials), and people (the library as human capital, knowledge navigators, conduits of partnerships and relationships). At the macro level, state library agencies have been scanning trends that impact libraries and developing strategies to “future proof” libraries for many decades. By introducing Strategic Foresight tools and techniques as an integral component of professional development for librarians, and as an operational strategy for library service, we will be able to instill the skill sets and evolve the mindsets that enable the creation of scenarios with tactical and strategic actions to bolster public libraries as a key component of humanity’s future.
Aside from the obvious, ongoing funding, awareness and advocacy issues, the challenges that face libraries are wide ranging: rising inequality; growing expectations; outsourcing of intelligence; competition from the private sector; explosion of data; and the biased skill sets and mindsets of professional librarians. Meeting these challenges head on is not impossible. To the contrary, libraries have long delved into the future in response to trends and community expectations. From Maker Spaces with 3D printers, to experiential resources using virtual and augmented reality, libraries are engaged in identifying and implementing new, non-traditional services. The antiquated idea of “responding to trends” needs to change; in order to do this, libraries must engage in creating their future through the exploration of multiple alternative possibilities and future-empowered opportunities.
Futures scenarios for libraries must first and foremost include teaching professional librarians the mindset and methodologies of Strategic Foresight. This will help us to align library services with emerging community needs – the gig economy; organizational transformation; strategic partnerships (i.e. embracing perceived competitors such as Google and creating a future of collaboration), etc. Libraries can capitalize on their currency of trust, redefine the library space as a center of innovation and collaboration, and rebrand professional librarians as information navigators with the skill set to manage and disseminate big data. Libraries can pursue this while still creating scenarios that expand the library as the hub for community engagement and lifelong learning where there is equity of access for all.
Libraries are expanding their space, their services and their appeal, which is why of the future of libraries will be bright and the impending demise of libraries is simply a tall tale.
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Dawn La Valle
Director of the Division of Library Development, Connecticut State Library
Dawn LaValle is a recognized Aspen Re-Envisioning Public Libraries Expert; a Certified Strategic Foresight Practitioner, and a Disruption Navigator for Libraries, she is focused on fostering a more collaborative innovative culture, library services and solutions and to instill 21st mindsets in the next generation of library leaders. She most recently served as a consultant to the Dubai Public Library System, in the framing of a strategy to re-envision the future state of libraries as 21st Century anchors of the community and innovation destinations.