“Inside the Box” Librarians


I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of individuals in this profession are “Inside the Box Librarians” after all. I used to think that librarians as a whole were the most innovative, creative and adventuresome group with which I had ever been associated. And, maybe that’s still true when it comes to implementing solutions to immediate issues, or developing unique approaches to tired old programs.

When it comes to seeing where the (other than school) library fits in a future where schools are preparing 21st Century students for jobs that don’t currently exist that will use technology that hasn’t been invented to solve problems we don’t yet understand, they can not think outside their comfort zone. Their thinking is very much inside the box.

Apparently, the profession needs a few futurists who can give us some perspective in which we can believe and prepare. Minnesota Library Futures Initiative that began last October is a great start. The futurist Michael Rogers helped launch the initiative by stating in his keynote remarks, “The practical futurist is someone who thinks about the future. Then they take some practical steps toward that future.” As much as I applaud their initiative, I am highly skeptical of a committee process for seeing the future of libraries. If you read their minnesota library futures initiative website, it reads like any other bureaucratic committee effort controlled by a “steering committee” – bogged down by process.

Stephen Abram stated in a Futurist interview in 2008 that;

Abram: Reading isn’t going to go away, but it’s only one aspect. Probably, it will be some combination of reading, visual conversations, lessons. … Most of the important stuff will have been converted twenty years from now. We can convert the entire Library of Congress for $9 billion right now, which, in terms of national priorities, is only 5 weeks of Iraqi conflict. It’s doable. It used to be undoable. The corpus, the ability to create cultural context is going to change the nature of how culture is expressed when you look at culture as a cultural activity. So 50% of everything ever written in Chinese has already been converted and put into a central vault. They’re 5 years away from almost 100% of all Chinese documentation and books being converted…

Don’t forgot Mike Matas, at TED2011, who presented A next-generation digital book, “the first full-length interactive book for the iPad -with clever, swipeable video and graphics…” This has already been followed by The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, from Touch Press. iTunes says;

The Waste Land for iPad brings alive the most revolutionary poem of the last hundred years for a 21st Century audience. A wealth of interactive features illuminate T.S. Eliot’s greatest work. This digital edition carefully respects the typography and integrity of the original yet offers spectacular new ways to explore the significance and influence of the poem.

Those are the kinds of perspectives and prospects we need to understand in order to begin to develop our 21st Century Library plans and strategies. Reading “Back to Basics” and “Digital Textbooks Slow to Catch On” type articles are not encouraging for hope of a profession oriented on the dramatically changing future. I guess too many are still trying to just keep the doors open.

How are librarians going to contribute to a future where schools are preparing 21st Century students for jobs that don’t currently exist that will use technology that hasn’t been invented to solve problems we don’t yet understand?

6 Comments

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6 responses to ““Inside the Box” Librarians

  1. Well said, Steve, and I completely concur: most librarians have proven they are unwilling to think outside their “box,” the four walls of their present-day brick-and-mortar libraries. Futurists and futuristic thinking are greatly needed if we are to serve the needs of the rising generation. BTW, I had to read the quote twice from Stephen Abram; it doesn’t make clear what is meant by “stuff will have been converted.” In my world, to be converted usually means to be convinced of the truthfulness of a particular religious bias. But I’m sure, from the context, you and Abram had in mind the conversion of hard copy materials into digital collections. Good post, right on topic!

  2. The Washington County Library system in southern Utah does have a futuristic and out-of-the-box plan. We are constantly coming up with innovations that will propel our library system forward and keep up with futuristic concepts. Yes, more can be done, but we always keep new technologies and ideas in the forefront of our plans.

    • That’s excellent. Appreciate you sharing that.
      Can you relate any specific details that will help others understand how thinking futuristically translates into actions?
      Can you estimate how far into the future your library is implementing changes now for that future state?

  3. Karren R.

    I agree that we are frequently a box bound profession, but when plates are overflowing to the point of needing to mop the floor, it is hard to find the time and energy to envision new purposes and methods and to implement them. It is a time worn excuse, but is valid when staffing is really short.

  4. The general solution is a commitment of time and energy, based on the understanding that not making the investment in planning leads to awful consequences. The library I direct took early, direct hits beginning in July 2009: deep cuts to hours, materials,and staff, including 2 consecutive years of 2 week furloughs for every staff member. It was a struggle to keep the doors open-literally,because maintenance services were cut. All that pain was a great antidote to the assumption that we could conduct business as usual, or that as an “acknowledged community asset” we would always have enough, did enough and knew enough to survive. The new mantra is test, probe, identify opportunities, collaborate, advocate, think in terms of the library as a community center, and NEVER assume anything!

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