The dramatic changes in society, exponential advances in technology and globalization of ‘everything’ are easily recognizable one decade into the 21st Century. The United States is no longer world leader in a global society – not even in education (we are now ‘average’, and rank 25th of 34 in math). Smartphones with 4G wireless data transfer, touch screen and digital video recorder, have made the Jetson’s video phone a reality – and more dramatically – mobile. Tablet devices are replacing laptop computers as the standard mobile computing device for the most continuously connected society in history in a ‘post-PC’ world.
Nowhere is change more evident than in the librarian profession. We are; seeing commercial competition for information access and delivery services arise routinely, making ineffective attempts to serve young library customers whose needs we don’t understand, being inundated with technology beyond our capacity to keep pace, while knowing our younger customers are more technologically savvy than we. We are experiencing library closures everywhere and rampant privatization of library management, regardless of our best achievements. Affects on libraries are obviously more than just the bad economy based on daily reports of unforeseen changes in all of the external factors that influence libraries and librarians.
There are at least five major challenges that every librarian will face, sooner or later. Whether you overcome these challenges will determine whether you become a 21st Century librarian, and ultimately whether you, your library and your profession survive.
1. Broadest Spectrum of Library Customers in History
The six generations (including that Gen Next of adolescents) that comprise 21st Century library customers create significant differences in library service demands, with the most drastic difference between the Great Generation and the Millennials. This drastic difference creates a heavy demand on librarians to continue traditional library services for some ‘patrons’, while creating new technology-based services for Digital Native ‘customers’. Digital Fugitive and Digital Native customers are at opposite ends of the customer service spectrum, but both deserve excellent library services. The following diagram is a broad generalization of where the generations fall within three types of library customers.
2. Information Literate Millennial Customers
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills published its model in 2009, and since then a nationwide movement to reform public education has gained popular appeal. To ensure that future America is capable of participating in the global economy, a major priority is to teach information literacy to young people to be able to use all the technology effectively to access and manage information.
The role of librarian as expert researcher handing information to a waiting patron is the antithesis to the collaborative, participative mindset of the emerging Millennial customer. Even Gen Y customers are more technologically literate than most librarians, because the vast majority are Digital Natives, but very few of them are pursuing a career in librarianship. In order to prepare for the increasingly more information literate Millennial customer, librarians need to become guides for information literate participants.
3. Computers that Replace Librarians
Michael Milken, called “The Man Who Changed Medicine” by Fortune magazine in 2004, explained to CNN’s Larry King that cancer research is progressing at an exponential rate because of the massive quantities of data available to researchers. “Computers are a million times faster than they were 10 to 15 years ago. We have the computing capacity now to deal with … one trillion calculations a second. … What we only could have dreamed of doing when I started working on cancer research more than 30 years ago, we can do today in an hour or an afternoon. It is a totally different world today.” [Emphasis added.]
In June, 2010 the New York Times published an article about IBM’s new super “answering” computer called Watson.
For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. … With Watson, I.B.M. claims it has cracked the problem.
Will the reference librarian become obsolete? It will be up to them NOT TO.
And The Winner Is…
4. Transition to Digital Content
Because digital media providers, like industry leader Overdrive, provide greater access to eBooks, audio books, music, and video (over 300,000 titles) than your local library can afford to offer from its own collection, traditional circulation is being overshadowed by electronic formats.
“OverDrive has developed custom download websites – or ‘Virtual Branches’ because they look and feel like one of your [library] branches – for 10,000 libraries worldwide.”, because Millennial library customers prefer to access rather than own, so digital media is only going to become more available.
For those who prefer to access it today, rather than wait for 2-3 weeks to check it out at their library when they finally get it in their catalog (the one book for one customer model applies to eBooks also), “The third-generation Kindle is now the bestselling product in Amazon’s history, eclipsing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). … Kindle (Wi-Fi) and Kindle 3G were the best-selling products on Amazon.com this holiday season , and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was the most purchased Kindle book on Christmas Day, as well as the most gifted Kindle book on Christmas Day.” [Emphasis added.] (MSNBC article, 1/12/11)
“Since the beginning of the year , for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the Company has sold 115 Kindle books.” (MSNBC article, 1/28/11) In addition to Amazon now making its eBooks available for check-out through 11,000 local libraries, the predicted under-$100 Kindle is now a reality, and the predicted ‘free with subscription’ Kindle can’t be far behind. [See Amazon’s New Kindle Bringing Fire to the Tablet Market, 9/29/11.]
“At HarperCollins, … e-books made up 25 percent of all young-adult sales in January , up from about 6 percent a year before – a boom in sales that quickly got the attention of publishers there.” (NY Times article, 2/5/11)
5. Devaluing of the Library’s Benefit to the Community
Alarming news of the California governor’s proposal to cut over $30M in funding for the state’s libraries, staggering news of award winning Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County cutting $17M from their 2010-11 budget that forced the lay-off of dozens of staff, and more local library closures in 2010 than anyone cared to count, bring a frightening issue to the forefront of our professional concerns – the role of the library in the 21st Century!
Can or should libraries try to compete with commercial information providers like Google, Netflix and Amazon? Can or should libraries try to compete with digital technologies like smartphones, tablets, and geosocial networking? How does the library retain it’s relevance in its local community that is a part of a global community?
Both Leonard Kniffel, long time Editor and Publisher of American Libraries, and former ALA President Roberta Stevens have acknowledged that the major question of the 21st Century that they are most often asked is; “Why do we still need libraries?”. They both also express exasperation from being asked that question routinely, which makes one wonder if the profession has any adequate answer. What can libraries do to remain relevant in their communities in the 21st Century environment – except become 21st Century libraries?
When one considers all the evidence of advancing technology, education reform, societal changes, information literate customers, and globalization of ‘everything’ and their impact on librarianship and libraries, it is crystal clear that 21st Century librarianship MUST BE drastically different from all previous concepts of librarianship. It requires a professional who embraces the potential of technology, creatively finds appropriate ways to implement it into library services, and one who has more diverse – even ‘unconventional’ – skills than ever before. The 21st Century Librarian is a professional who understands the Millennial library customer, is able to adapt existing services and create new ones to meet their community’s needs, and change the public perception of “library”.
The future of librarians as information providers is not in a dazzling building, but in the world of cyberspace that resides in the hand-held devices of most library customers, and as an indispensable partner in the local and world communities. Generation Next adults will only access information on their mobile devices, and they will have information literacy skills far beyond any previous generation while living in local communities that are becoming more focused on global issues.
Librarians must both catch a vision of the 21st Century Library and Librarianship, as well as achieve them before 2020, or the local library will either be extinct, a reliquary, or simply a community civic center, with no librarians. In this Century of change, only 21st Century Librarians can create a 21st Century Library!
A Sixth Challenge Every Librarian Must Face 8/18/13
A new answer to the old question – Why Do We Still Need “libraries”? – We Don’t! 2/3/14