ALA FINALLY has recognized what I have been professing and writing for almost 18 months, and many others for longer. [The wheels of bureaucracy churn very slowly.] The ALA Office for Information Technology Policy, Policy Brief No. 4, June 2011, “Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st-Century Public Library” has been published. Author Dr. Roger E. Levien, is a fellow of the Office for Information Technology Policy of the American Library Association, working on the America’s Libraries for the 21st Century Program since 2008. “Dr. Levien graduated with highest honors from Swarthmore College and holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University in applied mathematics (computer science).” Of course it comes with the required bureaucratic disclaimer; “The opinions articulated in this policy brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.”
In the Summary section that begins the Policy Brief, Levien’s Conclusion is all there is of any note.
The changes confronting public libraries over the next 30 years will be profound, just as those of the past 30 years have been. That libraries have responded so effectively thus far is encouraging, yet it appears that they will have to face even more difficult challenges in the future. The choices described in this policy brief respond to the possible outcomes of the economic, social, and technological forces and trends that will affect libraries. Yet they all assume that public libraries will continue to exist. Unfortunately, it is not impossible to imagine a future without libraries. If that is to be avoided so that libraries can continue to fulfill their role as guarantors of free and unbiased access to information, they must play an active role in shaping their future.
ALA recognition of what so many have been saying for the past many months, years? Is this validation, or copying? Doesn’t matter as long as we all agree.
Levien goes on to elaborate in the “Challenges Facing Today’s Public Libraries: A View of the World” section that he sees “Four of these trends, already influential, appear destined to play a particularly critical role in shaping the future of all libraries: continued advances in digital media and technologies, heightened competition, demographic transformation, and financial constraints.”
Levien also spends several pages on “The Role and Functions of Public
Libraries: A View of the Library” covering collection, circulation, cataloging and providing access to it, providing reference services, public access computers, and services for children, teens and adults. Nothing new or profound here.
It was gratifying to note that Levien recognized that the future of the public library will be determined by strategic planning. His concluding section to his paper addresses “Alternative Visions for Public Libraries of the Future – Strategic Choices”.
America’s public libraries, of which there are over 9,000 (with over 16,000 total facilities), have substantial strategic autonomy within the overall policy and financial guidance set by their communities in addressing the needs of their patrons. To meet the challenges they face, they must make strategic choices in four distinct dimensions, each consisting of a continuum of choices that lies between two extremes. Collectively, the choices a library makes along each of the four dimensions create a vision that it believes will enable it to best serve its patrons and its community. The four dimensions are illustrated in Figure 1 and described below.
He goes on to elaborate on the continuum by stating “Eight Cases” which illustrate the extremes of the four continuum elements. This is one model of facing the future. Interesting but not new.
While there is virtually nothing new or profound in Levien’s paper, it is important that ALA has adopted his “Policy Brief” because it FINALLY establishes in ALA Policy what so many have been saying and writing for so long – change is here, the future of the public library is far from certain, and the changes in technology, competition and society will have profound affects on what that future will be. So, NOW it is officially time for all public libraries to sit up and take notice of their future.
Of particular value in this publication is the reiteration of what so many have written – the future of the library will be determined locally – not nationally! Better late than never!