Public libraries now confront formidable challenges. The digital transformation of all media affects our resources, services, staff and programs, while changes in users and their needs, the growth of competitive Internet services, and financial stringency add complexity.
To address a range of possible responses and contrasting visions, author Roger Levien provides this perspective on the future of libraries.
For the brief behind this presentation, visit http://www.ala.org/offices/oitp/publications/policybriefs
Welcome to this Web presentation on “Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library.”I am Roger Levien, the author of this policy brief, which I prepared as a Fellow of the Office for Information Technology Policy of the American Library Association.In this presentation I will cover key points from the brief. It’s overall message is that while we cannot predict the future, we can make reasonable assumptions about the forces and trends shaping it, and use them to plan responsive strategies. My goal is to encourage you to confront the future by taking an active role in setting a clear strategic vision for your library. I will suggest a step-by-step process by which you and your colleagues can do so.
In the course of this presentation, I will address four topics.To begin, I am going to review four major forces and trends – the challenges – that are confronting all public libraries . I’ll call that the View of the World. Then, I will ask -- what are the advantages that all libraries have in meeting those challenges? I’ll call that the View of the Library.Next, I will explore four dimensions that span the range of strategic alternatives that libraries have -- and identify some common elements among them.Finally, I am going to describe for you a process for using that information together with local information, to shape a 21st century strategic vision for your library. My message is simple: if libraries are to continue to fulfill their valuable role in society, they must take an active role in shaping their future.
There are four principal challenges facing libraries during the next few decades.The first, and best known is the continuation of Disruptive Advances in Digital Media and Technologies. Since they are widely recognized, I will focus on their consequences for media and libraries. Advances in computation and storage will make it possible for individuals to possess vast libraries of personal and public information and entertainment. Today hard drives hold 2-3 terabytes, in coming decades personal storage will comprise hundreds of terabytes. To put that in context: that will be sufficient to hold the contents of the Library of Congress.Furthermore, advances in communication will produce affordable gigabit per second service everywhere, both wired and wireless. Although we worry now about achieving broadband coverage or gigabit Internet to our homes and libraries, within a decade or so, I believe they will be readily available, providing access to vast quantities of information and entertainment to any one, almost any where on the globe.For those receiving that information, there will be displays – from palm size to wall size; featuring high resolution, full color images, putting all that information and entertainment in their palms or on their walls. Much of that material will be drawn from the cloud – which will offer everything from order-by-the-slice storage to full systems supporting substantial organizational functions. With those services available from the Cloud, many organizations -- including libraries -- will be able to divest themselves of their on-site computer servicesEven software, as we have known it, will fade from view, being replaced by apps, widgets, and cloud servicesThe consequence of these changes for libraries will be the continued development of new types of media and the arrival of new informational and artistic genres.Think of the new media that have arrived in the last decade – smart phones, e-book readers, tablets, the iPad, the Kindle Fire. Their evolution will continue, while entirely new media may well come on the scene.The new media open the way to new genres – think of how the computer enabled the computer game. The new phase will come from integrating what has been previously separate – text, graphics, audio, video, interactivity, and hyperlinks in informational and artistic forms. The musician Bjork’s latest album, Biophilia, “essentially turns an album into a sort of audiovisual game” according to the front page review by the New York Times’ computer games reviewer. All of this will continue the dynamic of major Media Ecosystem Disruptions Think of the OLD means of distribution – bookstores, music stores, video stores. All are being replaced by the NEW – online stores and digital downloads. Think of the OLD means of preparation – publishers, producers, agents. All are being replaced by the NEW – sites, services, search engines, social media, self publishing, self promotionHow does the library find its way to a productive future in the midst of this Maelstrom of Disruptive Change?
The second challenge that Libraries face is increased competition in every one of the 15 activities listed in the policy brief. Consider just two of those: collections and reference.First, in competition with the local library’s diverse media collections, there are: Amazon – which has over 800 thousand conventional and e-books listed on its site; Audible – which has a catalog containing over 85 thousand audio books; Netflix – which offers over 100 thousand DVDs and 12 thousand streaming videos; and then there are iTunes, Rhapsody, Spotify – that provide access to more than 13 million songs; Consequently: apotential library patron with an iPad has access via the Internet and Web to far more books, videos, and music than any single public library can provide Second, in competition with the local library’s reference service, there are: Google, Bing, and other, specialized search engines, which provide ready answers to many questions that reference librarians have traditionally handled. Consequently, that same potential library patron can rely upon a search engine in her hands to answer many of her reference questions. The third challenge is that the US Population will undergo a major demographic transformation during the next few decades, which will be reflected in the composition of library patrons and their needs:Overall, the US population will grow by two-fifths: From about 310 million in 2010 to almost 440 million in 2050 -- meaning a substantial increase in potential library users.Especially because the population will be older: Those over 65 will increase to 1/5th of the national population by 2050; which is a bigger proportion than the current percentage over 65 in FL -- our most senior state. That means a strong focus on the needs of the post-65 age group. And it will be more diverse: Immigrants will increase from 1/8th of the population in 2005 to 1/5th in 2050 -- meaning many more potential library users with beginning English language skills Hispanics will increase from 1/6th of the population in 2009 to almost a third by mid-century -- meaning additional Spanish language and Hispanic arts and culture services will be needed In fact, whites will be a minority by 2050. The final challenge is one that I imagine all of you are too familiar with. Significant financial constraints: For a large portion of the coming decade governments at every level will need to cut back and libraries will be on the cutting board.I am going to concentrate on challenges 1 and 2 -- technology and competition. The effects of each of the other two -- demographics and finances -- are specific to each library, depending very much on the type of community it serves.
Although the specifics will differ among libraries, and each library may have additional advantages, it seems to me that there are six advantages that apply to almost all public libraries:The first one is PEOPLE: its staff and managers are a library’s greatest advantage. Not only because of their skills, but especially because of what characterizes library professionals as seen by their customers:In contrast to the competition: They provide unbiased personal service at no charge. They have no commercial or political incentives. They adhere to a strict professional code of ethics. They are generally experts in different subjects or services And from the library’s viewpoint: They must be a means of achieving adaptive change. The second is PLACE: Libraries generally offer physical facilities that are quiet, private, and comfortable for reading, reflection, meeting. They represent valuable infrastructure for their community.. Third, let’s not forget that the PRICE is right. A library’s free services are difficult for commercial competitors to meet, except through intrusive advertising. The fourth is the set of PRINCIPLES that all public libraries are guided by: freedom of access to information; protection of the privacy of patrons; unbiased assistance and recommendations. It is indicative that librarians were named the most trusted sources of information in a 2007 survey PRIDE is the fifth advantage. Not self-pride, though that is important, but the library as a source and symbol of community pride. This is often displayed through the quality of a library’s building and facilities. It is also demonstrated by the highly favorable attitudes of community members toward their libraries. Libraries are one of the few public agencies that provides a responsive, non-bureaucratic, easy to use and enjoyable service for free. And the final advantage is that libraries offer everything in one PACKAGE: Information, education, and entertainment in a variety of media and formats. A library is a one-stop shop.
I’m going to lay out the range of choices along four separate dimensions. Let’s consider them one by one. We’ll begin with a dimension that ranges from Physical to Virtual, both in facilities and in media. At one extreme, the left end in this image, lies the library that is entirely physical both in its media holdings and its facility. But, such a purely physical public library is really no longer feasible. The closest we might come to that extreme today would be a primarily physical library with a limited Web presence and selected virtual media. Even at this extreme, it is likely that financial and space pressures will move more of the physical media off-site, often to warehouses where they will be held jointly with other libraries. At the other extreme, a purely virtual library is entirely conceivable. Such a library would consist of a Web site (with social networking) that serves as a portal to a wide selection of virtual media and services. Almost all libraries currently operate toward the physical end of this dimension, but the changes we have discussed are moving them toward the virtual end. The strategic questions is how far will or must they go? The next dimension to consider spans the range from Individual Focus to Community Focus. This applies to all libraries, no matter how they have chosen to locate themselves on the physical to virtual dimension. A library that emphasizes its Individual Focus serves the needs of its customers one-by-one. Its furniture and facilities have been designed and laid out for individuals to find and use library resources with minimal distractions. It offers one-on-one services and it provides access to equipment not available to (or too expensive for) most individuals. A library that focuses on its Community would offer work and meeting spaces for community groups; hold events of community interest; create and hold archives of local records, artifacts, and memorabilia. Like its opposite number, it would provide access to expensive equipment, but directed to its community customers, who might be committees, teams, interest groups, or other collections of community members.
Now let’s turn to how a library might use these dimensions to select a Strategic Vision. Each library, bearing in mind its mission, its View of the World, and its View of the Library’s strengths, must decide where it wishes to be in each dimension. The closer it moves to one end, the higher the proportion of the service at that end it will deliver. However, unless the dot lands at one extreme or another, each choice is a balance, with the end closest to the dot having a higher emphasis than the other. The placement of a dot is simply indicative; it should be backed up with a careful description of the state it is intended to indicate. For example, consider the first dimension. One choice is indicated by the red dot here. It designates that this aspect of the library’s vision strikes a balance between physical and virtual media in which virtual media are in a slight majority. This might also suggest that it expects to deliver its services both through physical facilities and over the Internet, with the latter delivering the larger part. Similar considerations apply to the placement of dots on each of the other dimensions.Taken together, these choices along four dimensions -- backed up with careful descriptions of the intended state -- describe one possible vision for a library. Each library may explore a different range of choices depending upon local needs, local budgets, and other local circumstances. Clearly the choices attractive to a rural small town library will be different from those that appeal to a large urban library or wealthy suburban library. The choice of a vision is, in the end, a matter of judgment in which an assessment of the challenges and opportunities presented by the external world, in conjunction with a hard-nosed view of the library’s competencies and assets, must play the key roles.
No matter what strategic vision a library selects, certain elements are highly likely to be present:The first is the needto enhance and continually updatelibrarian competencies. Librarians must be able to serve as digital media mentors who are fluent in the languages and structures of digital documents and data and the availability of information resources. They must know how to make effective use of recommendation systems, social networking, and messaging to communicate with and respond to patrons. They must possess a richer and even more nuanced understanding of their users than they do today.Next is the inevitability of increasedcollaboration and consolidation: driven by the growth in the volume of materials – both physical and digital; the rapid shift in user demand from physical to digital media and the consequent pressure on acquisition budgets, and, not least, financial pressures. Of course, there is also the inevitability of increased digitization -- the rapid increase in digital media, both physical and virtual, will continue. The relentless push of personalization technologies and social mediawill also continue -- library-based recommendation systems (resembling those of Amazon and Netflix, but supplemented by face-to-face communication) will be commonplace, as will libraries reaching out to clients through various social media, just as 3/5ths of libraries already use Facebook. As the volume of local data, records, and historical memorabilia grows, libraries will be called upon to increase their role in archivingand cataloging locally important materials. Librarians are well trained to lead in organizing, establishing metadata vocabularies, choosing data structures, and maintaining provenance. Moreover, keeping data bases and documents available will require translation of formats and media transfers, as one medium goes out of use and others enter. Pricingwillcontinue to be important -- librarians should fight hard to retain “free for all.” Many patrons, regardless of economic situation, will prefer to borrow for free rather than to buy media. Finally, libraries must work hard to serve a broad range of community needs, not only archiving local materials, but also providing meeting areas for community groups and holding exhibits of art by local artists. They should be ready to help in emergencies and in addressing other community challenges. Through anticipation of evolving community needs, libraries can prepare themselves to play key roles in helping communities adapt to change.
So, to summarize:The changes that libraries are facing and will continue to confront in the coming decades are profound, just as those over the past decades have beenThe fact that libraries have successfully adapted in response to those changes is encouraging, but the changes that lie ahead will be even more challengingThe choices that I have characterized, spanning four dimensions, are responsive to those challenges. But success is not assured.Each library must actively establish a realistic and responsive strategic vision that will guide its development, if it is to successfully confront the challenges of the future.
Confronting the future
Strategic Visions for the21st Century Public Library Dr. Roger Levien Fellow, Office for Information Technology Policy American Library Association
Challenges facing all public libraries ◦ View of the World Competitive advantages of all public libraries ◦ View of the Library Dimensions of choice ◦ Strategic alternatives for public libraries ◦ Common elements Choosing a Strategic Vision ◦ A process for libraries Conclusion ◦ If libraries are to continue to fulfill their valuable role in society, they must take an active role in shaping their future
1. Continued Disruptive Advances in Digital Media and Technologies • Computation • Storage • Communication • Displays • Cloud of services • Software • New media and new genres Media Ecosystem Disruptions
2. Heightened Competition • In both finding and providing all media • Via the Internet / World Wide Web • From vast collections around the World3. Demographic Transformation • Larger, aging population • More diverse ethnically and racially4. Financial Constraints • At every level of government • For this decade at least
Librarian Competencies Collaboration and Consolidation Digitization Personalization and Social Networking Archiving and Cataloging Pricing Community Service
for library managers and boards View of the World Communicate Global/Local Set Determine Develop Alternative AssessMission Strategic Visions & Decide& Goals Imperatives Global/Local View of the Implement Library Global/Local
Changes over next decades will be profound ◦ As those over the past decades have been Successful change so far is encouraging ◦ But challenges in future will be even more difficult Choices that have been described respond to these challenges, but success is not assured If libraries are to continue to fulfill their valuable role in society, they must take an active role in shaping their future
For further information or assistance: Dr. Roger E. Levien President, Strategy & Innovation Consulting 631 Long Ridge Road, Unit 10 Stamford, CT 06902 Roger.Levien@gmail.comPDF copies of “Confronting the Future” http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oitp/publications /policybriefs/confronting_the_futu.pdf