What is a 21st Century Library?


Excellent question, and one that deserves considerable discussion among librarians, patrons and everyone concerned about the future of (mainly) public libraries in this new century. Even though the 21st Century is already 10 years old, it’s not too late to develop sound principles and guidelines. Public libraries have a significant role to fill in this technology driven society, and as society changes and evolves, librarians have an obligation to do the same.

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7 responses to “What is a 21st Century Library?

  1. steve84721

    Yes this is a large question but, in essence, a “good” 21st Century Library is nothing more or less than a “good” 19th or 20th Century Library…one that’s forward thinking, in tune with its jurisdiction (even the fringe), studies the trends, keeps up with technology and collection materials (whatever the format). See? It’s easy!

  2. Allen

    Sounds easy enough. And for sure the “good” library does all those things.

    Maybe the tougher questions are:
    How do we stay in tune with the Millennial patrons, Digital Native and Digital Immigrant patrons, and our “traditional” patrons all at the same time?
    Which technologies do we adopt first, and how do we employ them effectively?
    Which materials are most appropriate, and aren’t they likely to become obsolete really quickly, like all technology?
    How do library staff acquire the necessary technology skills?

    Doesn’t seem like it’s quite as easy as it sounds. The “devil is in the details” as they say.

  3. Susan

    Steve84721, you must be ready to retire. Do you even own a Kindle or are you afraid to hold one in your hands like many in the profession. Like any business libraries either keep up or become museums or totally obsolete. It’s not easy and that is why most large systems hire MBAs and not MLSs to run their libraries.

  4. steve84721

    Ah. Herein lies the problem in writing and not being able to “hear” tone. The opening sentence is true. The “See? It’s easy” comment was supposed to be laced with sarcasm – like we can just trundle along effortlessly keeping up with the harangue and barrage of technology, patron demands, funding body priorities, etc. etc. Yes, MLS programs must become business/MBA/MPA focused. Technology is always in phase and flux. So, what is a 21st Century Library? That might be a question for history. For now, we’re libraries and it is the 21st Century so the question might be answered differently in as many libraries as make the attempt to answer. (No, I don’t have a Kindle. No, I’m not afraid of one. It is a budget issue for me personally and for my institution).

  5. Susan

    True, it might or could be a question for history. Or, we can take it on like the “Great Generation” took on their challenges and found solutions. Today is full of people who are, it seems, happy to sit and wait to see. We should all look towards making history and not just waiting around to become history. “What is a 21st Century Library?” is the question at hand and up for discussion. I think it demands people to lead the way who want to lead. Budget is definitely a huge problem everywhere in the world, but in adversity grows the stout heart of the women and men who will change history – hopefully for the better. When a book is written, it needs a reader. Then a shelf to rest on, or does it?

    A rug is a thing, a dish is a thing a book is a thing. It’s the thoughts on the pages that give it life in the mind of the reader. Have you ever been to a book sale and saw hundreds of books that you wouldn’t waste your money or time on, and think – who takes up shelf space to keep these forever? You can bet the libraries of great men like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, William Randolph Hearst and Teddy Roosevelt were very selective of what went on their shelves. I think the 21st Century Library will have great books and they will be available in both paper and digital form, but librarians need to face the fact that computers and Kindles are here to stay and in their early generations. Much is yet to come, some we may not even be able to dream. So many disciplines are so far beyond what could be done 20 years ago because of computers. We must all embrace the good technology and stop ignoring it or saying it isn’t worth being included in our budget.

  6. Devil's Advocate

    So, 21st Century Librarianship (i.e. libraries as institutions and as places, and librarians) embraces technology and uses cutting edge delivery methods to connect with users. Is that it?

    • I’d say that is a fairly succinct definition of 21st Century librarianship. It’s doing what librarians have always done, but doing it with appropriate technology, PLUS being more patron-centered in our perspective. (Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of opinion about what 21st Century librarianship is, or should be. ALA doesn’t have one that I have found anywhere.)

      Traditionally, librarianship has always been about facilitating acquisition of information. But, that presumed that librarians were the experts in the acquisition, evaluation and dissemination of information. However, when one considers the “Millennial” patron, the “Digital Native” patron, nearly all 60+ million of them have grown up acquiring information digitally (of good, bad or indifferent quality). So, what do they need from libraries or librarians? (Not intended to be a rhetorical question.)

      Ten years into the 21st Century we are still providing library services for the “Great Generation” patrons who still make up a large segment of our users, but whose numbers are diminishing every year, as well as, services for “Traditional” patrons, the 80+ million “Baby Boomers” coming along who may need help acquiring information in a digital world. What can librarians do for these “Digital Immigrants” (those born before the digital revolution)?

      Where does this broad spectrum of patrons fit within the “library service response” framework? How do we span the broad spectrum of services to meet the needs of these diverse patrons? Do we? Should we? How do we, as a profession, transition from library-centered services to patron-centered services? What do we need to know, and where do we get the 21st Century Skills?

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