Recipe for a 21st-century library

swedish chef

21st-century libraries. It’s a term that’s been in vogue for some time now; in my mind, prepending just about anything with “21st-century” gives this notion of the brushed aluminum and sterile, white plastic veneer, with the transition to digital everything a time of distant memory and harboring nostalgia for the bygone era of print. Well, not so much. It turns out that we’re actually in the 21st century, no matter how much my date-writing skills prompt me to use “19–” every so often.

Maybe it’s time to get a fix on what is really going on in this idea of a 21st century library. While there are plenty of ideas of what the ingredients should be for 21st-century ideals in the library profession, I’m going to focus more on the message as it intersects with technology, as distilled from the Computers in Libraries 2013 conference (as a segue from last week’s blog post).

1) Enlist and energize your staff in technology.

Libraries large and small had this to say: change happens internally, and it happens best when everyone’s on board. This is especially pertinent for those who will be implementing or supporting the technology. It’s one thing to be versed in Facebook, but quite another if you’re an active Facebook user already. An example of this is the Douglas County Library system’s digital collection. Before this initiative was deployed, the library allowed its staff to try the e-readers for themselves, even giving them a small stipend with which to purchase material they’d personally enjoy. This was a far more effective form of staff training than any webinar, as many of the staff became evangelical in their promotion of the new service.

Providing stipends to staff isn’t an option for every library, certainly, but encouraging staff proficiency and training is a must. Also, depending on the nature of your library, partnering with other community resources and taking baby steps might be the answer. For example, if you found a volunteer to offer basic Facebook instruction (or even an online tutorial), arrange a time when your staff and volunteers can attend!

Resistance is almost a given wherever change is concerned, but change is easier if everyone can understand and agree with the new direction. When hiring new staff or recruiting volunteers, an eye should be cast toward technological savvy. Just the qualities of being willing and curious about technology may be all that are needed to building inertia for change in your library.

2) Push your library’s presence beyond its walls.

Social media was one of the lead actors at the conference, big surprise. Like the transition from Web 1.0 to 2.0, actively engaging your patrons and interacting with your community is today’s way of doing business. Online or text reference, a social media presence, downloadable content, and community partnerships are all gaining momentum. Wouldn’t you prefer a resource that you can access from your home or workplace, even a smartphone?

There are many services that libraries can (and likely do) offer via email, phone, even chat or text, without significantly changing how they do business. However, the other side of this coin is self-promotion. On our side of the desk, we are pointedly aware of everything we do. What about the person on the street walking past your library, visitors / tourists, local business owners, or town selectpeople? Do they know about your story hours, book discussions, financial literacy programs, basic computing classes, small business resourcesvideo game events, artist round table dates, or knitting gatherings? Libraries often have the advantage of being centrally-located in their communities, but the next step is to be centrally-located in the minds of those we serve.

Some libraries are sponsoring Little Free Libraries (or the high-tech alternative, LibraryBox) in high-traffic areas. Others have mastered social media (like the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library and its Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Youtube – including episodic fiction about zombie preparedness, among other things) or e-newsletters. Still others, like SUNY Cortland, are building a streaming video collection. This isn’t even mentioning some of the fantastic community collaborations going on in Maine.

Point being: don’t just get the word out, make it easy for people to learn what you do and what’s going on at your library. Promote your “always on” services and explore new ones. Be borderline shameless in promoting your library.

3) Become the technology center for your community.

The first two points were leading up to this one, and rightfully so; it’s hard to establish any claim to being the center of technology if you can’t support (by way of staff and volunteer training) or promote your services. Fortunately, many libraries can make a de facto claim to being the technology center by way of just being “the place to go when you want an answer” (and librarians being some of the smartest people around, naturally).

Many libraries are scheduling one-on-one sessions, classes, or designated times for patrons to bring in their devices. Others are offering up makerspaces (which any library can do, don’t let the terminology throw you) and hands-on or video skills training. Still others are following trends such as QR codes (though not everyone feels that QR codes are useful in libraries) or augmented reality applications.

It seems obvious that the first criterion is that you’re meeting a demand (though allegedly Henry Ford argued that people don’t always know what they might eventually come to demand). Still, the principle is sound, and librarians will often have a sense of what their patrons would like them to provide. Once you begin offering the service of technology training, the demand will begin to grow on its own. In effect, as your patrons begin to know what they don’t know, their ability to articulate what they want to learn grows. The patron who begins with basic instruction on email and a year later is asking for help with getting an Etsy storefront in place is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

The future of libraries may not be easy to reach, and there is no single path that will work for every library. Some may be content to remain in the 20th century, and that may work for their communities. For those that are finding that the future is catching up to them, I hope this is helpful advice.

Phew! Seems like I had quite a lot to get off my chest on the topic. How about you?

One comment on “Recipe for a 21st-century library

  1. Pingback: Branch and Vine: New tools for cultivating your library’s story | Maine Techsplorers

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