Future of Public Libraries

The world is undergoing a digital revolution. Business, social, education, and recreation are all undergoing a digital upheaval. According to Dr Sara Dods from CSIRO the digital disruption signifies the death of the Industrial revolution where the defining driver was mass production[1]. The digital revolution creates a platform for personalized production, increased connection and collaboration, both with our customer and each other. Creating a future for public libraries requires library professionals to ask the big questions and understand the barriers our users face to better their lives — not the barriers that face them using the library. What are the big questions facing our Australasia region? The top 5 global trends identified by the UN are: 1. Growing wealth inequality; 2. Persistant jobless growth — higher unemployment especially for youth; 3. Lack of leadership; 4. Rising geo-strategic competition; 5. The weakening of representative democracy[2]

Libraries can respond to these global trends through collaboration and partnerships to provide solutions at a local level. Education, increased creativity, innovation, targeted job skills, improved business skills, are all identified solutions to these trends and are areas that public libraries play an important role in, making a difference at the community level. Staking a bold claim to change people’s lives assures the library’s future is not one as the museum of the book. Instead the future of the library is one of actively creating better lives, better communities and better organisations. Libraries need to be much more intentional about the service choices made so that they can have a far greater impact. It is not about doing everything, but about doing those things that will make the biggest difference locally.

Other key drivers that libraries need to be aware of are: Australia is 83% connected digitally (households)[3]; our customers are well connected, empowered, and ready to learn, share and create; more integration, collaboration, connection and flexibility is possible in a digital world; Mobile Technology, Mobile ID, Mobile payment; flexibility for the individual versus one size fits all.

Libraries need to look beyond the satisfaction and performance measures that support our inward focus. Its all about us! Our strategic visions are about becoming a more cost efficient library, or the best library, or delivering the best customer service — with a big BUT as we deliver these services on our terms with our rules.

We need to crack open the institution of the library. In order for the individual to determine how, when, where and who they engage with will require us, the library professionals, to rethink our vision, re-frame our policies and re-position our services. And for those who work within libraries this is a great challenge to our way of working. For when an institution actively works to become people centred and outward facing, control moves to the customer[4]. And this letting go is the challenge that becomes our greatest opportunity.

Our customers have changed. In the digital revolution our customers can find information instantly, anywhere, anytime. They are very busy but they do check things out, usually with other customer feedback on social networks such as Tripadvisor. They will walk away — especially from traditional institutions. They want us to listen to them and will switch allegiances quickly if they feel we are unresponsive. They totally ignore online advertising but do look for 3rd party reviews and ratings. This is a more powerful driver for change than the digital tools that enabled this power shift to happen and we must shift our thinking outward to respond. If librarians are to truly put the individual customer at the centre of our service and personalize our services this will totally transform how we operate and engage.

To successfully orientate our libraries outward we need to start with our vision. It needs to shift to encompass a higher purpose and articulate the contribution the library makes to enable a better world for the residents in our communities. Our values also need to include our community and partners[5]. It is not about us, the librarians. We need to make bold claims and intentionally act on them. Outwardly facing libraries take deliberate actions to make it easier for the outside world to work with them. A good start is to hold community conversations and listen to what they are saying. Delve deeper into the evidence of what is facing your community — look at census trends, analyse membership data against postcodes and socio-economic data to build evidence of your current customer base. This evidence can then enable intentional choices regarding services and identifying community issues that need to be solved.

Re-positioning our work practices, policies and procedures to deliberately remove barriers and to make it easier for the outside world to collaborate with us is also key to focusing outward. Working with the community, not doing to or for the community, means that the community gets to choose and collaborate with the library to achieve improved community outcomes. On their terms.

So the future of libraries is exciting, bright and ever changing. For me the key to the future is to collaborate more with each other. The one library card initiatives in South Australia, Northern Territory and possibly Victoria are showing the way for limitless access to shared collections across the State. This is essential as access is not location or time dependent in a digital world and this makes it easier for our customers, who we exist for, to access us. No longer making it so hard to use our services. But we need to go further.

The defining line between school libraries, public libraries, university libraries exists in our funding models. But what if we ignored that and enabled a discovery layer to access all the local, State and National catalogues for the user, be that student, school student, or community member. A discovery layer that was personalized to the customer interests, needs, and location. A discovery layer that anticipated the customer’s needs and also linked them to local community events of interest based on preferences. A discovery layer that connected me, the customer, to people of like interests, to content that I could be interested in, to the community I lived in. A limitless library — it only requires our will to make this happen.

It is us, the library industry, that needs to act and fundamentally disrupt our services and revolutionize our business models to be sustainable. Our future is not about making incremental improvements to our services but about challenging existing service models and developing completely new ones. Changing the fundamental definition of our profession and services from curation, information providers with a one size fits all approach to a definition that encapsulates enabling communities and people to create, learn, and innovate with a collaborative and personalized approach will not be easy. But it is essential. The future of libraries is up to us, the library industry — my question really is are we, the library professionals up for the future?

[1] http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/audio-video/webcasts/recent-webcasts/glam-sector-and-digital-innovation accessed 19/03/2015

[2] http://reports.weforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/top-10-trends-of-2015/1-deepening-income-inequality/ accessed 19/03/2015

[3] http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/8146.0Chapter12012-13 accessed 19/03/2015

[4] Meyer, Christopher (2010) Leading outside the box: the outward facing organisation http://www.workingwider.com/systems_and_processes/leading-outside-the-box-the-outward-facing-organization/ accessed 19/03/2015

Written by

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics

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