The Revolutionary Library


There is only one certainty regarding libraries in the future – they will not remain the same as they were in the past.

Evidence has convinced me that the 21st Century Library Paradigm is that libraries will be defined by those librarians running them and their local community more than by the profession, or SLIS, or any librarian associations’ standards. Here’s why I believe there is a paradigm shift, and what I believe it is.

Let’s start with the concept of a paradigm shift.
According to authors at the Division of Education Studies at Emory University writing on renowned scientist and educator Thomas Kuhn (the father of the modern concept of “paradigm shift”);

Kuhn argued that science is not a steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge. Instead, science is “a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions” [Nicholas Wade, writing for Science], which he described as “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.” After such revolutions, “one conceptual world view is replaced by another” [Wade]. [Emphasis added.]

The conceptual world view of libraries has been irreversibly altered by world changes in many areas, but foremost in technology, societal changes and education reforms exacerbated by a recession economy – therefore “library science” has changed. I have expended numerous paragraphs over the past year explaining specifically how these external influences and changes have impacted libraries in the 21st Century. I’ve also speculated on many aspects of libraries and librarianship in light of these change agents manifesting themselves almost daily.

To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes; ‘A person’s mind, once stretched to accommodate a new idea, never returns to its original condition.’ Libraries will never return to what they were pre-21st Century!

All this milieu of information crystallized my thoughts about the 21st Century Library as I listened to George Needham and Joan Frye Williams discuss “The Sustainable Library” in the closing session of the PLA Virtual Spring Symposium. They first proposed that “sustainability planning” is the new strategic planning. Developing plans for library sustainability is more important than developing a strategic plan, because if you can’t sustain your library you won’t exist in the new future. They went on to explain how “libraries should be associated with their outcomes”, and using terms like branding, scalable, customers, and essentially outlining the well-worn “car salesman approach” of telling the prospective buyer the benefits of this car, not just the features, and that we should be selling the benefits of our libraries. They also offered a “Sustainability Checklist” that proposes evaluating existing or new programs by asking questions like – “Is it clearly green/environmentally friendly?” and, “Does it target a growing clientele?” and, “Is it equitable (not necessarily identical) across the entire community?”

The whole series of actions that Needham and Williams discussed clearly require librarians to employ some business acumen and to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit – skills that librarians without MBA degrees generally don’t possess. Their description of the library of the future could not have been a more different description of libraries from today than if they had been talking about sustainable life on Mars, except for one factor – the library’s focus on the community’s needs is the only perpetual element of what a library is.

In fact, their description of what libraries must do to sustain their existence was so different from anything I’ve heard in the past 15 years, I had to wonder how many of the 184 attendees signed in to the webinar fully comprehended the implications of what they were advocating. I wondered if anyone thought – “YES! I know just what they mean and how to make our library sustainable! Why didn’t I think of that myself.” with a clear understanding of what resources it would require. My suspicion was that the majority were thinking (truth be told) “HUH? How in the world can my library even begin to achieve what they are describing?”

My point is – Needham and Williams were describing a library of the future that in no way resembles the library that we all grew up knowing. They even made reference to the fact that most peoples’ perception of the library was formed at age nine, and has never changed. If this does not describe a drastic world view of libraries that no longer exists, I don’t know what does.

Thus; the current world circumstances have caused the “series of peaceful interludes [to be] punctuated by intellectually violent revolution” where “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal [library] science” have required “one conceptual world view [of libraries to be] replaced by another”.

Which brings me to a 21st Century Library Paradigm description.
In May, 2009, Stephen Abram (recent recipient of Canadian Library Association’s 2011 Outstanding Service to Librarianship Award) published a Blog Post titled The Library Rebooted. He promoted this wonderfully eye-opening article by writing “I heartily recommend it. … Even in an era when you can “Google” just about anything, many libraries have remained as vibrant, dynamic, and popular as ever. … They’re staying that way by redefining the business they’re in.” [Emphasis added.]

Since then we have heard and read numerous other respected sources repeating essentially the same recommendation – libraries must reinvent themselves to remain relevant to their community.
• Last November, an LA Times article by David Sarno, Libraries reinvent themselves as they struggle to remain relevant in the digital age got a lot of buzz, mostly because it made many wide-ranging claims about the future of public libraries, and cast dubious credulity on them remaining relevant in the 21st Century.
• Needham and Williams are advocating essentially the same need to reinvent your library through continuous assessment of everything, with an entrepreneurial spirit.
• I have proposed that libraries are being subjected to discontinuous change, and require discontinuous thinking to remain relevant (10 Reasons to Believe Discontinuous Change).
Michael Porter (the Gadget Guru – Gadget Checklist 2010: For library staff, users and our future) also presented at the PLA Virtual Spring Symposium, during which he expressed concern over the “every man for himself” attitude he sees within the librarian profession.

After reconsideration, I personally don’t find that attitude a major issue, even though the polarization within the librarian profession discussed by me, effinglibrarian, Annoyed Librarian and others, is obviously disconcerting to most librarians. I think it is another indication that supports the premise of my 21st Century Library paradigm. Those who are upset by the divergence among librarians’ perceptions are considering it from the “old” paradigm of libraries (as I was).

What rule states that all libraries must look, smell, act and operate alike, and provide the same services? The unique individuality of each library appears to be a given – because each is fighting to survive in uniquely local circumstances, which makes it a very personal endeavor. Therefore, a new library paradigm must accommodate uniquely local conditions and circumstances, and include such ideas as the “Community Center Model”.

Even though there will continue to be a generally agreed upon body of knowledge for the profession that is taught by SLIS, and debated by gatherings of librarians (what would a profession be without debate), as well as some long-held tenets professed by associations of librarians – the ways in which we think about and perceive libraries in the 21st Century MUST fit the rapid and continually changing environment and circumstances of the future.

21st Century Library Paradigm:
The 21st Century Library will be defined by those librarians running the library to meet the needs of their local community, more than by the profession, or schools of library and information science, or by any association of librarians’ principles.

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One response to “The Revolutionary Library

  1. Great article! The subject of assessing and planning based on local conditions arose in our planning meeting yesterday. It helps clarify our avidity for the community center model, which really reflects the particular needs of our community. As you point out “there will continue to be a generally agreed upon body of knowledge for the profession that is taught by SLIS.” That I think is a given. Adapting theory to local conditions, and as Williams and Needham advocate, selling the benefits of the institution to the “buyer” are critical.

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