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May, 2014:

Future? Libraries? What Now? – After the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries

*** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on May 21, 2014.***

I attended the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries a few weeks ago.

[Let's give it a minute for that to sink in.]

ALA President Barbara Stripling at the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries at the Library of Congress

ALA President Barbara Stripling at the ALA Summit on the Future of Libraries at the Library of Congress. (Photo by the author)

Yes, that was that controversial Summit that was much talked about on Twitter with the #libfuturesummit hashtag. This Summit and other summits with a similar theme close to one another in timing – “The Future of Libraries Survival Summit” hosted by Information Today Inc. and “The Future of Libraries: Do We Have Five Years to Live?” hosted by Ken Heycock Associates Inc. and Dysart & Jones Associates – seemed to have brought out the sentiment that Andy Woodworth aptly named ‘Library Future Fatigue.’ It was impressive experience to see how active librarians – both ALA members and non-members – were in providing real-time comments and feedback about these summits while I was at one of those in person. I thought ALA is lucky to have such engaged members and librarians to work with.

A few days ago, ALA released the official Summit report.1 The report captured all the talks and many table discussions in great detail. In this post, I will focus on some of my thoughts and take-aways prompted by the talks and the table discussion at the Summit.

A. The Draw

Here is an interesting fact. The invitation to this Summit sat in my Inbox for over a month because from the email subject I thought it was just another advertisement for a fee-based webinar or workshop. It was only after I had gotten another email from the ALA office asking about the previous e-mail that I realized that it was something different.

What drew me to this Summit were: (a) I have never been at a formal event organized just for a discussion about the future of libraries, (b) the event were to include a good number of people outside of the libraries, and (c) the overall size of the Summit would be kept relatively small.

For those curious, the Summit had 51 attendees plus 6 speakers, a dozen discussion table facilitators, all of whom fit into the Members’ Room in the Library of Congress. Out of those 51 attendees, 9 of them were from the non-library sector such as Knight Foundation, PBS, Rosen Publishing, and Aspen Institute. 33 attendees ranged from academic librarians to public, school, federal, corporate librarians, library consultants, museum and archive folks, an LIS professor, and library vendors. And then there were 3 ALA presidents (current, past, and president-elect) and 6 officers from ALA. You can see the list of participants here.

B. Two Words (or Phrases)

At the beginning of the Summit, the participants were asked to come up with two words or short phrases that capture what they think about libraries “from now on.” We wrote these on the ribbons and put right under our name tags. Then we were encouraged to keep or change them as we move through the Summit.

My two phrases were “Capital and Labor” and “Peer-to-Peer.” I kept those two until the end of the Summit and didn’t change. I picked “Capital and Labor” because recently I have been thinking more about the socioeconomic background behind the expansion of post-secondary education (i.e. higher ed) and how it affects the changes in higher education and academic libraries.2 And of course, the fact that Thomas Picketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, was being reviewed and discussed all over in the mass media contributed to that choice of the words as well. In my opinion, libraries “from now on” will be closely driven by the demands of the capital and the labor market and asked to support more and more of the peer-to-peer learning activities that have become widespread with the advent of the Internet.

Other phrases and words I saw from other participants included “From infrastructure to engagement,” “Sanctuary for learning,” “Universally accessible,” “Nimble and Flexible,” “From Missionary to Mercenary,” “Ideas into Action,” and “Here, Now.” The official report also lists some of the words that were most used by participants. If you choose your two words or phrases that capture what you think about libraries “from now on,” what would those be?

C. The Set-up

The Summit organizers have filled the room with multiple round tables, and the first day morning, afternoon, and the second day morning, participants sat at the table according to the table number assigned on the back of their name badges. This was a good method that enabled participants to have discussion with different groups of people throughout the Summit.

As the Summit agenda shows, the Summit program started with a talk by a speaker. After that, participants were asked to personally reflect on the talk and then have a table discussion. This discussion was captured on the large poster-size papers by facilitators and collected by the event organizers. The papers on which we were asked to write our personal reflections were also collected in the same way along with all our ribbons on which we wrote those two words or phrases. These were probably used to produce the official Summit report.

One thing I liked about the set-up was that every participant sat at a round table including speakers and all three ALA presidents (past, president, president-elect). Throughout the Summit, I had a chance to talk to Lorcan Dempsey from OCLC, Corinne Hill, the director of Chattanooga Public Library, Courtney Young, the ALA president-elect, and Thomas Frey, a well-known futurist at DaVinci Institute, which was neat.

Also, what struck me most during the Summit was that those who were outside of the library took the guiding questions and the following discussion much more seriously than those of us who are inside the library world. Maybe indeed we librarians are suffering from ‘library future fatigue.’ And/or maybe outsiders have more trust in libraries as institutions than we librarians do because they are less familiar with our daily struggles and challenges in the library operation. Either way, the Summit seemed to have given them an opportunity to seriously consider the future of libraries. The desired impact of this would be more policymakers, thought leaders, and industry leaders who are well informed about today’s libraries and will articulate, support, and promote the significant work libraries do to the benefit of the society in their own areas.

D. Talks, Table Discussion, and Some of My Thoughts and Take-aways

These were the talks given during the two days of the Summit:

  • “How to Think Like a Freak” – Stephen Dubner, Journalist
  • “What Are Libraries Good For?” – Joel Garreau, Journalist
  • “Education in the Future: Anywhere, Anytime” – Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor and President at the University of Houston
  • “From an Internet of Things to a Library of Things” – Thomas Frey, Futurist
  • A Table Discussion of Choice:
    • Open – group decides the topic to discuss
    • Empowering individuals and families
    • Promoting literacy, particularly in children and youth
    • Building communities the library serves
    • Protecting and empowering access to information
    • Advancing research and scholarship at all levels
    • Preserving and/or creating cultural heritage
    • Supporting economic development and good government
  • “What Happened at the Summit?” – Joan Frye Williams, Library consultant

(0) Official Report, Liveblogging Posts, and Tweets

As I mentioned earlier, ALA released the 15-page official report of the Summit, which provides the detailed description of each talk and table discussion. Carolyn Foote, a school librarian and one of the Summit participants, also live-blogged all of the these talks in detail. I highly recommend reading her notes on Day 1, Day 2, and Closing in addition to the official report. The tweets from the Summit participants with the official hashtag, #libfuturesummit, will also give you an idea of what participants found exciting at the Summit.

(1) Redefining a Problem

The most fascinating story in the talk by Dubner was Kobe, the hot dog eating contest champion from Japan. The secret of his success in the eating contest was rethinking the accepted but unchallenged artificial limits and redefining the problem, said Dubner. In Kobe’s case, he redefined the problem from ‘How can I eat more hotdogs?’ to ‘How can I eat one hotdog faster?’ and then removed artificial limits – widely accepted but unchallenged conventions – such as when you eat a hot dog you hold it in the hand and eat it from the top to the bottom. He experimented with breaking the hotdog into two pieces to feed himself faster with two hands. He further refined his technique by eating the frankfurter and the bun separately to make the eating even speedier.

So where can libraries apply this lesson? One thing I can think of is the problem of the low attendance of some library programs. What if we ask what barriers we can remove instead of asking what kind of program will draw more people? Chattanooga Public Library did exactly this. Recently, they targeted the parents who would want to attend the library’s author talk and created an event that would specifically address the child care issue. The library scheduled a evening story time for kids and fun activities for tween and teens at the same time as the author talk. Then they asked parents to come to the library with the children, have their children participate in the library’s children’s programs, and enjoy themselves at the library’s author talk without worrying about the children.

Another library service that I came to learn about at my table was the Zip Books service by the Yolo county library in California. What if libraries ask what the fastest to way to deliver a book that the library doesn’t have to a patron’s door would be instead of asking how quickly the cataloging department can catalog a newly acquired book to get it ready for circulation? The Yolo county library Zip Books service came from that kind of redefinition of a problem. When a library user requests a book the library doesn’t have but meets certain requirements, the Yolo County Library purchases the book from a bookseller and have it shipped directly to the patron’s home without processing the book. Cataloging and processing is done when the book is returned to the library after the first use.

(2) What Can Happen to Higher Education

My favorite talk during the Summit was by Dr. Khator because she had deep insight in higher education and I have been working at university libraries for a long time. The two most interesting observations she made were the possibility of (a) the decoupling of the content development and the content delivery and (b) the decoupling of teaching and credentialing in higher education.

The upside of (a) is that some wonderful class a world-class scholar created may be taught by other instructors at places where the person who originally developed the class is not available. The downside of (a) is, of course, the possibility of it being used as the cookie-cutter type lowest baseline for quality control in higher education – University of Phoenix mentioned as an example of this by one of the participants at my table – instead of college and university students being exposed to the classes developed and taught by their institutions’ own individual faculty members.

I have to admit that (b) was a completely mind-blowing idea to me. Imagine colleges and universities with no credentialing authority. Your degree will no longer be tied to a particular institution to which you were admitted and graduate from. Just consider the impact of what this may entail if it ever becomes realized. If both (a) and (b) take place at the same time, the impact would be even more significant. What kind of role could an academic library play in such a scenario?

(3) Futurizing Libraries

Joe Garreau observed that nowadays what drives the need for a physical trip is more and more a face-to-face contact than anything else. Then he pointed out that as technology allows more people to tele-work, people are flocking to smaller cities where they can have a more meaningful contact with the community. If this is indeed the case, libraries that make their space a catalyst for a face-to-face contact in a community will prosper. Last speaker, Thomas Frey, spoke mostly about the Internet of Things (IoT).

While I think that IoT is an important trend to note, for sure, what I most liked about Frey’s talk was his statement that the vision of future we have today will change the decisions we make (towards that future). After the talk by Garreau, I had a chance to ask him a question about his somewhat idealized vision of the future, in which people live and work in a small but closely connected community in a society that is highly technological and collaborative. He called this ‘human evolution’.

But in my opinion, the reality that we see today in my opinion is not so idyllic.3 The current economy is highly volatile. It no longer offers job security, consistently reduces the number of jobs, and returns either stagnant or decreasing amount of income for those whose skills are not in high demand in the era of digital revolution.4 As a result, today’s college students, who are preparing to become tomorrow’s knowledge workers, are perceiving their education and their lives after quite differently than their parents did.5

Garreau’s answer to my question was that this concern of mine may be coming from a kind of techno-determinism. While this may be a fair critique, I felt that his portrayal of the human evolution may be just as techno-deterministic. (To be fair, he mentioned that he does not make predictions and this is one of the future scenarios he sees.)

Regarding the topic of the Internet of Things (IoT), which was the main topic of Frey’s talk, the privacy and the proper protection of the massive amount of data – which will result from the very many sensors that makes IoT possible – will be the real barrier to implementing the IoT on a large scale. After his talk, I had a chance to briefly chat with him about this. (There was no Q&A because Frey’s talk went over the time allotted). He mentioned the possibility of some kind of an international gathering similar to the scale of the Geneva Conventions to address the issue. While the likelihood of that is hard to assess, the idea seemed appropriate to the problem in question.

(4) What If…?

One of the slides from Thoams Frey's Talk at the ALA Summit. (Photo by the author)

One of the slides from Thomas Frey’s Talk at the ALA Summit. (Photo by the author)

Some of the shiny things shown at the talk, whose value for library users may appear dubious and distant, however, prompted Eli Neiburger at Ann Arbor District Library to question which useful service libraries can offer to provide the public with significant benefit now. He wondered what it would be like if many libraries ran a Tor exit node to help the privacy and anonymity of the web traffic, for example.

For those who are unfamiliar, Tor (the Onion Router) is “free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.” Tor is not foolproof, but it is still the best tool for privacy and anonymity on the Web.

Eli’s idea is a truly wild one because there are so many libraries in the US and the public’s privacy in the US is in such a precarious state.6 Running a Tor exit node is not a walk in the park as this post by someone who actually set up a Tor exit node on a hosted virtual server in Germany attests. But libraries have been a serious and dedicated advocate for privacy for people’s intellectual freedom for a long time and have a strong network of alliance. There is also the useful guidelines and tips that Tor provides in their website.

Just pause a minute and imagine what kind of impact such a project by libraries may have to the privacy of the public. What if?

(5) Leadership and Sustainability

For the “Table Discussion of Choice” session, I opted for the “Open” table because I was curious in what other topics people were interested. Two discussions at this session were most memorable to me. One was the great advice I got from Corinne Hill regarding leading people. A while ago, I read her interview, in which she commented that “the staff are just getting comfortable with making decisions.” In my role as a relatively new manager, I also found empowering my team members to be more autonomous decision makers a challenge. Corinne particularly cautioned that leaders should be very careful about not being over-critical when the staff takes an initiative but makes a bad decision. Being over-critical in that case can discourage the staff from trying to make their own decisions in their expertise areas, she said. Hearing her description of how she relies on the different types of strengths in her staff to move her library in the direction of innovation was also illuminating to me. (Lorcan Dempsey who was also at our table mentioned “Birkman Quadrants” in relation to Corinne’s description, a set of useful theoretical constructs. He also brought up the term ‘Normcore’ at another session. I forgot the exact context of that term, but the term was interesting that I wrote it down.) We also talked for a while about the current LIS education and how it is not sufficiently aligned with the skills needed in everyday library operation.

The other interesting discussion started with the question about the sustainability of the future libraries by Amy Garmer from Aspen Institute. (She has been working on a library-related project with various policy makers, and PLA has a program related to this project at the upcoming 2014 ALA Annual Conference if you are interested.) One thought that always comes to my mind whenever I think about the future of libraries is that while in the past the difference between small and large libraries was mostly quantitative in terms of how many books and other resources were available, in the present and future, the difference is and will be more qualitative. What New York Public Libraries offers for their patrons, a whole suite of digital library products from the NYPL Labs for example, cannot be easily replicated by a small rural library. Needless to say, this has a significant implication for the core mission of the library, which is equalizing the public’s access to information and knowledge. What can we do to close that gap? Or perhaps will different types of libraries have different strategies for the future, as Lorcan Dempsey asked at our table discussion? These two things are not incompatible to be worked out at the same time.

(6) Nimble and Media-Savvy

In her Summit summary, Joanne Frye Williams, who moved around to observe discussions at all tables during the Summit, mentioned that one of the themes that surfaced was thinking about a library as a developing enterprise rather than a stable organization. This means that the modus operandi of a library should become more nimble and flexible to keep the library in the same pace of the change that its community goes through.

Another thread of discussion among the Summit participants was that not all library supporters have to be the active users of the library services. As long as those supporters know that the presence and the service of libraries makes their communities strong, libraries are in a good place. Often libraries make the mistake of trying to reach all of their potential patrons to convert them into active library users. While this is admirable, it is not always practical or beneficial to the library operation. More needed and useful is a well-managed strategic media relations that will effectively publicize the library’s services and programs and its benefits and impact to its community. (On a related note, one journalist who was at the Summit mentioned how she noticed the recent coverage about libraries changing its direction from “Are libraries going to be extinct?” to “No, libraries are not going to be extinct. And do you know libraries offer way more than books such as … ?”, which is fantastic.)

E. What Now? Library Futurizing vs. Library Grounding

What all the discussion at the Summit reminded me was that ultimately the time and efforts we spend on trying to foresee what the future holds for us and on raising concerns about the future may be better directed at refining the positive vision for the desirable future for libraries and taking well-calculated and decisive actions towards the realization of that vision.

Technology is just a tool. It can be used to free people to engage in more meaningful work and creative pursuits. Or it can be used to generate a large number of the unemployed, who have to struggle to make the ends meet and to retool themselves with fast-changing skills that the labor market demands, along with those in the top 1 or 0.1 % of very rich people. And we have the power to influence and determine which path we should and would be on by what we do now.

Certainly, there are trends that we need to heed. For example, the shift of the economy that places a bigger role on entrepreneurship than ever before requires more education and support for entrepreneurship for students at universities and colleges. The growing tendency of the businesses looking for potential employees based upon their specific skill sets rather than their majors and grades has lead universities and colleges to adopt a digital badging system (such as Purdue’s Passport) or other ways for their students to record and prove the job-related skills obtained during their study.

But when we talk about the future, many of us tend to assume that there are some kind of inevitable trends that we either get or miss and that those trends will determine what our future will be. We forget that not some trends but (i) what we intend to achieve in the future and (ii) today’s actions we take to realize that intention are really what determines our future. (Also always critically reflect on whatever is trendy; you may be in for a surprise.7) The fact that people will no longer need to physically visit a library to check out books or access library resources does not automatically mean that the library in the future will cease to have a building. The question is whether we will let that be the case. Suppose we decide that we want the library to be and stay as the vibrant hub for a community’s freedom of inquiry and right to access human knowledge, no matter how much change takes place in the society. Realizing this vision ‘IS’ within our power. We only reach the future by walking through the present.

Notes

  1. Stripling, Barbara. “Report on the Summit on the Future of Libraries.” ALA Connect, May 19, 2014. http://connect.ala.org/node/223667.
  2. Kim, Bohyun. “Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries.” ACRL TechConnect Blog, March 23, 2014. http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=4180.
  3. Ibid.
  4. For a short but well-written clear description of this phenomenon, see Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. Race against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington: Digital Frontier Press, 2012.
  5. Brooks, David. “The Streamlined Life.” The New York Times, May 5, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/06/opinion/brooks-the-streamlined-life.html.
  6. See Timm, Trevor. “Everyone Should Know Just How Much the Government Lied to Defend the NSA.” The Guardian, May 17, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/17/government-lies-nsa-justice-department-supreme-court.
  7. For example, see this article about what the wide adoption of 3D-printing may mean to the public. Sadowski, Jathan, and Paul Manson. “3-D Print Your Way to Freedom and Prosperity.” Al Jazeera America, May 17, 2014. http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/3d-printing-politics.html.