My ideas about the future of libraries are rooted on the U.S. experience. But I believe librarians around the globe share common values and ideals. Citizens of the world also place a high value on libraries. They want to see libraries succeed.
For example, here is the modern Library in Alexandria in Egypt. It was built in 2002 by former President Mubarak to revive the ideals of the ancient Library of Alexandria. The original library was built more than 2,000 years ago.
These are citizens protecting the Library in Alexandria from being destroyed by protesters in early 2011.
Here are some U.S. citizens demonstrating to keep their local libraries from being closed.
Can we rely only on our audiences to save libraries?
Libraries are being built all over the world, even in less developed countries like Kenya.
Different kinds of libraries serve different purposes. Some are elegant and elite.
Some people are creative in coming up with different solutions to common problems, such as the decline in literacy and reading in our societies.
It would appear that all the world loves libraries. Why then, do we hear this kind of question so often?
Here is an even more drastic statement.
Librarians themselves have predicted their own doom. I will talk about how they have done this by using two examples of failures ..
And one success.
First, the failures.
As the number and kinds of libraries have grown, librarians have become highly specialized. Some librarians focus on the artifacts of librarianship as the essence of their jobs. They have lost sight of a higher mission.
Second, librarianship is faced with big changes in the society. Of course, we have seen many changes in our 3,000 year history. But today we are seeing a major impact on libraries.
Technology is one of these changes. Most librarians have embraced technology, even ahead of everyone else. But technology is seen by many outside the profession as competition to libraries.
Private companies do what librarians do, only better.
What is the success of librarians that contributes to our doom?
In the US, libraries have historically played a role as “people’s universities.” This helped citizens to qualify for better jobs and careers. Gradually, some of them began to buy books instead of borrow them from libraries. They no longer depended on libraries for their self-education and entertainment. They also began to want more control over how and where they access books.
Other people want a role in running library services. Sometimes they go ahead and set up libraries without librarians. Here is one set up by Occupy Wall St. demonstrators.
Business people started imitating libraries. They used common language on their signs instead of the Dewey Decimal system. They allowed people to eat and drink while reading, and they attracted more people who wanted to hang out there.
Some businesses do what libraries do, only better.
Because of these changes, there’s been a lot of talk at conferences, in newspapers, in articles and in blogs about the Future of Libraries, and what librarians should do to remain relevant.
In the U.S., despite the protest of citizens, some libraries have closed for budget reasons.
But even if library closings are not happening where you live, even if your cities are building modern, new libraries .. librarianship as we know it is still in fact doomed. What can we do?
Please notice that I said “librarianship as we know it is doomed.” We need to change librarianship as we know it . How can we do that? What skills do we need to turn things around?
We need more than just skills and training. We need action. What kind of action? Where do we start?
First, we need to expect more from ourselves and our communities.
As people move away from printed books, DVDs and other tangible formats for their information and entertainment needs, libraries are having to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
For some, this has meant embracing social networks on the web. Social networks are used not only to advertise libraries, but also to invite communities into an ongoing conversation with libraries.
In a similar manner, library spaces are reviving their importance as community gathering spaces, places for programs, meetings, etc. Library multi-purpose rooms are in high demand.
Here is the beautiful Liyuan Library in the village of Huairou, outside of Beijing. The community built this reading room in a place away from the village center so that it will be quiet.
This library seems to be going in the opposite direction from libraries in the US.
Libraries in the US want to be in the center of things. They don’t seem to be much interested in quiet any more.
Newer libraries in the US have smaller and smaller spaces devoted to quiet reading and study. Some libraries are moving their community spaces to the center and pushing the books into the background as art.
Other rooms are devoted to group work. Group work spaces are increasingly common in both university libraries and public libraries. More and more libraries are emphasizing their role as convener, bringing members of the community together to talk about issues of local and national importance. Librarians are serving as moderators in these discussions, helping people with diverse views and experiences to work on a public problem together.
Librarians today need to re-develop our mission to improve society in a new environment. Historically, we did that by offering people books and information so that they could educate themselves and better understand the world they live in. Today, people can get books and information from many sources, so libraries have to do more. “Improving society” implies a greater expectation than just meeting the needs of our users, or just providing information. Librarians today improve society by helping people to create knowledge.
Helping people to create knowledge requires not only technical skills, but also the ability to collaborate with our users.
Does this mean we shouldn’t provide information anymore?
It means we now also help people to evaluate information that they can find on their own.
And help people not just learn new things, but also to create new knowledge.
Does it mean we shouldn’t catalog books anymore, or create indexes to digital information? Of course not. Books, buildings, even new media like iPads are all artifacts of our library communities. People have an emotional attachment to library artifacts such as books on shelves, and that is a good thing for libraries.
But it is not our artifacts that will carry librarians into the future. It is us, the librarians. This implies new types of services, and a new relationship with communities. Marketing our services is good, but it is not enough.
Libraries have to compete with other leisure activities. So we have tried to make our spaces into better places to spend free time.
But it is not only our buildings that we need to modernize in order to survive.
We, the librarians, need to evaluate everything we do. We need to stop doing what is no longer necessary and constantly look for ways to improve our communities.
We need to move outside of our buildings more to find out what the community is doing and how libraries can participate.
A newspaper article said that librarians should be more like Lady Gaga. Why Lady Gaga? She is seen as innovative, a risk-taker, a change agent, and an early adopter. She talks a lot about self-empowerment. And she’s cool! Librarians need to become more visible and involved in our communities and on the web. The more visible librarians are, the more relevant they will become in society.
Each librarian needs to take responsibility for the future of the profession.
The Future of Libraries and Librarians Elizabeth Leonard Information Resource Officer US Embassy Beijing April 16-17, 2012