Tag Archives: future of libraries

Race for Relevancy- Keeping Our Eyes on Where we are Going


Many years ago…in another lifetime, I dabbled in auto racing (specifically rally and autocross for those fellow enthusiasts). While there are many skills you learn in racing, arguably the most important is where to look.

THE RULE: You look where you want to go.

It is deceptively simple advice. Why?  Because we are trained to drive using certain tools and methods to keep us safe. When you drive competitively you must employ different techniques designed to get you where you are headed faster, more effectively and, ideally, before the other guy. The downside (there always is one you know)- there are risks.

Relying on traditional driving tools and methods, novice racers can be distracted by the cars beside and behind them observing their progress.  While others focus on their instruments- checking RPM and speed- instead of feeling their car’s performance and response to the road for a faster response time. Some look only a few paces in front of their car. Unfortunately, when they do this they only see what really, in essence, is already done.  There is no time for course correction.  Looking a few paces in front is to look at the result of decisions already made.  All these traditional practices of driving, slow you down and shift your focus from where you are going.   When racing you look up and ahead.  What is coming? Where do you need to position your wheels to take that next curve? The really experienced drivers have studied the track in advance and know the curve after the next one.  They not only know how to set up for the coming curve but how to exit in preparation for the one they can’t even see.

Libraries have been talking about the future for decades.  SO why are we still having the same conversations? Why aren’t we making more headway? Because we are relying on our traditional tools for our decision making and thus ending up with traditional results.

These outmoded methods include:

  1. Look for Trends: Much like the driver who monitors the cars around them, we become distracted by those around us.  While yes we can learn from one another, too often we become distracted by the ‘innovations’ of other libraries and simply replicate.  We allow ourselves to become followers instead of leaders.  Look outward and forward.  What is the NEXT thing? What is happening in other disciplines that will influence libraries?  Simply put- by the time you read it in Library Journal it is old news.  Someone has been there and done it.  Does that mean you should not incorporate the idea? No! Go for it.  But do not stop there.  Use that innovation as a stepping stone to your next.
  2. Ask your Community What it wants: Oh now this one will get me in trouble…but hear me out.  When I was on faculty at a Washington State University, we took a student poll asking what services students would like to see in the library.  “Beer” was the #1 response.  Yes, I know that in some countries they do serve beer in academic libraries -but that is a topic for another blog.  The point here being, your patrons do not always know what they want!  And they most certainly do not know the possibilities of what you could give them.  Still not convinced? How many times has someone said “I wish the library carried eBooks” or “I wish the library did…(fill in one of a thousand other examples of something you already do)”.  We all bemoan that patrons do not know what the library offers.  So why do we think they have the magic answer to our future?  Librarians have debated “What is a 21st Century Library?” for decades…WE have to find the answer.  The response will let us know we got it right.
  3. Using Statistics for our decisions and direction: Just as with the driver focused on the space in front of him instead of the coming road, by the time we see these, they are behind us.  If we are being honest, the majority of our data is at least a year old by the time we can use it for serious analysis.  In addition, most of us would also agree that much of what we measure we do only for state requirements or our boards; not because we truly believe it reflects the interest and usage in our libraries.  This leaves us always responding never instigating.  WE will never be able to set ourselves up for the curve if we are busy responding to old information. Am I saying that statistics are useless? Of course not, but they aren’t going to get us to the future.  They are a gauge that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decisions we have made.  But to make the truly innovative and edgy decisions there are rarely stats to lean on.  This is where instinct and experience come into play.

You are the expert. You know your profession.  You know what is needed.  Be bold, Trust yourself and move forward decisively even when those around you tell you all the reasons you will fail or should not try.   As John Locke told us, new ideas are always suspect for no other reason than that they are new.

If we are to find our future, we must stop using outdated tools and methods.  Instead we must look to the future.  See what is coming and head towards it. Without excuse or apology.  Look where you want to go and MOVE.  So why is something that sounds so easy one of the toughest skills to master?  Simple. Keeping your eyes on the future and driving straight at it is hard because it forces you to trust your instincts and abandon the tools we traditionally use to keep ourselves safe and on course.

All those who stay on the edge or try what no one else has take risks.  Sometimes you fail. As with racing, the goal is, at best, to succeed and, at worst, survive the failure.

For those who may read this and say “But its not a race!” Really? Tell that to the folks in Douglas County, OR

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Libraries need to decide their future before someone else does…!


I was forwarded a very interesting article the other day.

“Clash in the Stacks”

by Carl Straumshein on Inside Higher Ed.

Several library directors at liberal arts institutions have lost their jobs as they clash with faculty and administrators over how much — and how fast — the academic library should change.

None of the dismissals, resignations or retirements are identical. Some have resulted from arguments over funding; others from debates about decision-making processes or ongoing personal strife. One common trend, however, is that several of the library directors who have left their jobs in recent years have done so after long-term disputes with other groups on campus about how the academic library should change to better serve students and faculty.

This is nothing new or revolutionary on its own. We have seen administrators and constituents disagree on vision, direction, or organizational mission and have a parting of the ways before…so why is it of note this time?

Because this time it is tied more to the overall quandary we are having in our profession than about any one individual and their employment. What we are seeing, as outlined in the article, are library leaders leaving positions due to a fundamental philosophical difference with their constituency over what a library should be. But we have spent years on this issue…so why now? Perhaps that is EXACTLY why! We as library professionals have spent YEARS talking about “finding our way” in this new world of information and “redefining our profession” and pondering what “the library of the future” will look like. Well guess what…the future is now…and people around us are tired of waiting for us to figure it out. If we continue on this path we will see more examples of having those decisions made for us.

Picture yourself in line at the Theatre concession stand– Eager to see your movie- the smell of movie popcorn- the laughing happy people all around. There is a parent and child in front of you in line. The parent says to the child “What do you want?” The child stares at all the possibilities-you remember those days fondly when the promise of candy could make your week! And… seconds tick by…. Finally the parent says “Ok, there are people waiting…do you want M&Ms or Twizzlers?” The child ponders this narrowed pool and then asks to see the potential candy options. Your foot starts to tap. The theatre employee pulls out the two bags of candy. The child holds both in his hands and thinks…weighing his options. You sense the couple behind you shifting as the woman whispers “What time does our movie start?” to her companion. You check your watch. The parent is clearly frustrated and says “Pick!”. The child continues to ponder and then just as it appears he has decided he says “Do they have SweetTarts?” The parent snatches up the M&Ms and slaps them on the counter “We will take these”. The clerk looks relieved. You sigh with relief. The parent is annoyed and the child’s bottom lip is now jutting out and quivering. What was a beautiful moment just minutes before has turned into a point of contention. Much like our “redefining of our profession and the future of libraries”, it can be beautiful and monumental and profound…until everyone else gets tired of our journey and is ready for us to “JUST PICK”.

Sensitivity to all the factors and variables in any situation is key to success and satisfaction for everyone. We do not exist in a vacuum. People, communities and organizations fund us and they expect and deserve a clear purpose for that funding. How many years (decades) can we spend “reimagining, redefining, and reinventing” ourselves before they stop taking us seriously?

“For the entire history of libraries as we know them — 2,000 or 3,000 years — we have lived in a world of information scarcity,” said Terrence J. Metz, university librarian at Hamline University. “What’s happened in the last two decades is that’s been turned completely on its head. Now we’re living in a world of superabundance.”

No one is disagreeing that this has been an unprecedented time of change for our world and the way we create, disseminate, store, and use information. But if WE are the information professionals…shouldn’t we be on the forefront guiding everyone along the path rather than in the back office debating ourselves into a second decade of discussion?

“To my mind, all of this hubbub is probably exacerbated by the fact that libraries are trying to figure out what they are and what their future is and what their role is,” said Bryn I. Geffert, college librarian at Amherst College. “Every time you have a body of people going through this kind of existential crisis, conflict is inherent. As you’re trying to redefine an institution, you know there are going to be different opinions on how that redefinition should happen.”

And what happens when we as a profession cannot agree on a course? Someone will start making those decisions for us.

The most recent case, Barnard College, presents a symbolic example of the shift from print to digital. There, the Lehman Hall library is about to be demolished to make way for an estimated $150 million Teaching and Learning Center. The new building means the library’s physical collection will shrink by tens of thousands of books.
As recently as this September, Patricia A. Tully, the Caleb T. Winchester university librarian at Wesleyan University, was fired after less than five years on the job. Tully and Ruth S. Weissman, Wesleyan’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, had for more than a year argued about how the library could work with administrators, faculty members and IT staffers.

“We just seemed to have different ideas about the role of the libraries,” Tully said then.

We must stop pounding our fists and debating options and get ourselves together on one page. Nuances of difference are expected – many libraries embraced coffee shops while others still cringe at the notion. Some libraries carried paperbacks far before others. But for the majority of our history as a profession there was a basic common ground on which we all stood. A united front of who and what libraries are and do. We have to get that back! That will require a common ground. A common vision. A united message.
We have a vehicle for that…The American Library Association. So where is their steadying hand, their leadership, their guiding presence? Nowhere useful. They are right there in the weeds with everyone else. We can find them putting together committees and task forces on emerging trends, library innovation, and library future. AKA- More discussion, more debate, more option, more ideas…no action.
We need ALA to step forward and take the leadership role and be the advocate and public spokesman for this issue. They need to rally the profession and move us all forward. As individuals we can only have so much effect. We blog, we advocate, we transform our corner of library land and try to shine a light for others. And in being that light in the dark we see good people losing jobs. Why? Because there isn’t a firm enough professional support system backing the most innovative efforts!

Other library directors have made less publicized moves, stepping down in silent protest as their roles are shifted farther down the university chain of command. Others yet have experienced the opposite, receiving support from their administrations to rethink the role of the library only to be met with opposition from faculty and other librarians. In addition to those named in this story, Inside Higher Ed interviewed three other former library directors.
“These are top-quality, innovative, forward-thinking people,” Metz said of Norberg, Tully and colleagues at other liberal arts institutions who have left or been asked to leave. “There must be other visions that they’re running up against that have a different definition of success.”

And, while this article is only focused on Academic libraries, the same situation can be found in public and school libraries across the country. ALA must make a stand. Lead. Guide. Provide the support these innovators need to ‘back their play’ while they stand on the front lines of this fight for the future of our profession and libraries. Warranted or not at this point, ALA is the Libraryland equivalent to the American Medical Association. Other professional and our constituents assume (right or wrong) that ALA plays a similar guiding and regulating role within the Library profession. Therefore, until ALA assumes a position on the future of Libraries and Librarians and advocates for that future publically, these cutting-edge innovators will continue to find themselves standing alone.

“There will be some institutions that decide that they don’t need libraries — that they don’t need librarians,” Tully said. “However, all the functions that now occur in libraries are going to continue to need to occur somewhere. The IT department or whoever is going to take those on, and then slowly they’re going to be hiring people who have library expertise, library backgrounds in order to do those things…. I think it’s a matter of breaking free of the library being some irrelevant, old-fashioned thing that used to be important but isn’t anymore. The way we get information has changed, but our need for information and our need for guides to that information continues.”

I’ve made my position abundantly clear.  I believe the mission of Public Libraries (sorry academics and schools- you have your own champions)  “is to provide the open and equal access to information that is necessary for the existence of an informed citizenry able to participate in their government.” But regardless of the path we choose, we must decide who we are and where we are going…or someone else will make our choice for us. Hopefully, at some point, ALA will lead the charge.

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