Communities Don’t Know What They Want Their Library To Be


According to Eli Neiburger during his remarks to the ILEAD USA group June 18. He was making the keynote address to the group of ILEAD participants in Illinois, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, and Utah – The Inverted Library: Harnessing the Creative Power of the Internet Generation to Reinvent Library Services. He covered a lot of topics, but this one was the one that resonated most to me. It represents our opportunity to demonstrate to our communities WHAT THEIR LIBRARY CAN BE!

Neiburger believes that libraries are in a transition period, much like early 20th Century technology of the Industrial Age. For example, some communities developed refrigeration by working through first ice harvesting and storage for dispensing in warm weather, to creating ice for regional dispensing, to bulk local dispensing of ice for home “ice boxes,” to eventually electric in-home refrigeration. Neiburger believes that we are still in the beginning of this Information Age when very limited parts of the world are experiencing the information revolution – relatively speaking – and technology is advancing faster than anyone can envision where it will end. Where it took decades for everyone to get refrigeration, 90-some percent now have it, and it appears to be the logical end of the development of that consumer technology. The rapid advance and continuous change of personal access to information – not necessarily communication, since texting and video are very prevalent – is what makes the present period in the Information Age a transition phase toward the end technology – whatever form that takes. Neiburger contends that chasing after technology at this time is a waste of resources because it changes too rapidly.

However, the future of the library is still in jeopardy because people, telecoms, information brokers and the world in general are trying to make money on that technology march toward the consumer end product, which ultimately will exclude the local library to a great extent. Because the role of the local library in the 20th Century was to “bring the world to the community,” we now must figure out how to transition to make “the 21st Century library bring its community to the world.”

He discussed many programs and services that his library, the Ann Arbor (MI) District Library, offers mostly to youth, but to all “users” as he prefers to call them. He thinks “members” is too exclusive and “customers” too commercial, but believes that everyone can and should be a “user” of the library’s services.

One AADL program that expands the notion of the library as a lending institution is Unusual Stuff to Borrow, which includes items like telescopes, music tools, science to go kits, and Kids Book Clubs to Go kits. Neiburger offered his formula for determining what can reasonably be lent by using the following. Medium cost (less than $400) + Short duration (of use like a one-time need) + Low frequency = Sweet Spot for accessing items to lend to library users. He said that AADL users are on a six month waiting list to borrow a quality telescope, and they will gladly wait that long to use something that they aren’t sure they want to buy, if they could afford it.

Communities don’t know what they want their library to be because the library’s traditional role and function are being replaced by advancing technology of the Information Age. Communities have as many questions about the future as do libraries, which means the opportunity is ripe for libraries to demonstrate to their community what they have the capability to become – WHATEVER THAT IS FOR THEIR COMMUNITY! The age of all libraries looking the same and providing the same collections and services is over. Libraries MUST become something new and valuable to their community, or risk being obsolete and being replaced. Period. End of story. Hopefully, not the end of the library.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Communities Don’t Know What They Want Their Library To Be

  1. I agree with most of what’s posited here with the-perhaps pedantic-exception of “users” when referring to “patrons.” We have adopted the term members, based on a community poll. “User” here at least, has very negative connotations. Rather than implying exclusivity, member projects an image of inclusiveness with a stake in the organization and its future.
    The premise that communities don’t know what they want their libraries to be is well made. Finding out what that is remains an essential part of this challenging transitional period. To modify a metaphor coined by T.E. Lawrence, it is often like “learning to eat soup with a knife.” We are learning to deal with messy, unfamiliar situations that require us reassess our institutional culture and operational framework. It requires us to think again about our traditional mission, how and where we deliver our services and to ascertain the particular needs of our community.

    • Thanks for that perspective Bob.
      Neiburger thinks that every tax payer in the community is already a “member” of the library, so the term doesn’t bring anything to the label. But, since not everyone in the community uses the library, the term “user” connotes recognition of the individuals that do use the library, as well as a connotation that individuals “using” what the library has to offer is the best end result for any library, as in “The Middle America Library has 10,000 users every month.”

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