ALA Finally Catches Up?

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.”

Intermingled in Levien’s discussion of incredibly obvious future trends affecting libraries, is ALA’a plug for its efforts over the past three years.

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!


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10 responses to “ALA Finally Catches Up?

  1. Thank you Steve,
    Have you read Alexis Madrigal’s recent Atlantic article “What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library”? If not please do. The author is perceptive and recognizes an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit when it appears. To select one quote: “Everywhere you look within the New York Public Library, it’s clear that the institution has realized its mission has changed. It is no longer only a place where people take out books and scholars dig through archives. The library has become a social network with physical and digital nodes.” Isn’t that our goal, to be diversified responsive assets and lo, a non-librarian has identified it!

    • I’ll check out that Atlantic article. Seems like there is a lot of that going around these days – non-librarians telling our 21st Century Library story. Seems kind of sad doesn’t it.

      Excellent! Thanks for steering me to that. Lots of great ideas there! In case anyone else is interested, here is the link.

    • Bob,
      I ran across something that made me think of you and your innovative organizational spirit.
      Recognizing the Organizational Challenges to Business Model Innovation at YouTube: It’s all part of the Open Innovation ideas and concepts, which is connected to ‘crowdsourcing’.

      • Thank you Steve,
        I will view it and pass it on to our staff. I am glad you enjoyed the Atlantic article. I must admit, many of most innovative ideas and animating thoughts are coming from outside librarianship. In a way it is frustrating, but it may also be an indication that we need to embrace the best that other fields have to offer. I am finding many of those ideas and much of that energizing thinking on sites like Bookbuzz and in compendiums such as their “Bookbuzz Book of Business Execution” By the way, I am not compensated for that endorsement!

        • Naturally. Most of us are not compensated for anything extra we do. 🙂
          Well, it appears that even ALA recognizes that non-librarians have something to offer, since they engaged Dr. Roger E. Levien with his background in applied mathematics and computer science to write their most forward thinking Policy Brief to date.

        • I LOVE IT, and I’ve only just started “Bookbuzz Book of Business Execution”. Any book that begins with quotes is a winner with me.
          “Without strategy, execution is aimless.
          Without execution, strategy is useless.”
          Morris Chang

          It reminds me very much of 20th Century U.S. educator J.R. Kidd who wrote; “Theory without practice is empty, and Practice without theory is blind.”
          Both truisms that one can hang their hat on.

  2. RockyRun

    The 30 year horizon for “profound” change may be a little naive – things are changing faster than that… One could worry that ALA will become irrelevant if they do not gain a greater sense of urgency to embrace and drive change. Almost every industry in our society will need to reinvent itself at least once over the next 10 years. Organizations (like the NYPL) that move quickly to adapt will thrive. Those that drag their feet will have their existence threatened.
    Perhaps rather than spending their energy helping a vocal minority fight the “privatization beast” (which is really a campaign to preserve a status quo in how libraries are operated), they should be more focused on leveraging the innovations available from the public and private sector to keep Public Libraries public – and open. As Benjamin Franklin said – “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”

    • I totally agree! Libraries MUST reinvent themselves much more often than 30 years, which is WAY too far to look into this uncertain future. Trying to see what libraries will become in the next 5 years would be helpful. Any ideas?
      (I also agree that ALA should consider its own future in the next few years if it doesn’t produce something of value NOW for its members.)

      • RockyRun

        A good place to start would be to look at global best practices that are emerging. A few cities, counties and buroughs in the UK have made real progress in making libraries more relevant – and defensible in the face of declining budgets. Manchester City has delivered £230 million in modernization and construction of new facilities by partnering with the private sector and taking a broader view of services that can be provided in, or near the libraries. The city gets more value for money and the community gets bright new libraries – and more convenient access to other services that they need.
        In Westminster, a similar transformation is underway.
        Exploring and presenting these trends and developments would be valuable to ALA members and the communities that they serve.

  3. Please see my post on the link below that discusses some of the innovations of our library system.

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