Everyone would like to know about the future, whether or not we are rich and successful and beloved there. Libraries are no different. We are becoming something new, and using tools prior generations of libraries may not even recognize. What will work? How will we know? What will be the best things we do in our libraries, with our limited budget and staffing? It would be good to know all the right answers.
Although we cannot know the specifics of the future, we can make decisions based on our strengths. Our primary offering is customer service. Everything else we do in libraries is focused on helping people find and use information. There may be fun tools we can use to make that happen, or exciting new strategies we can use. But at the core of what we do is always service. We can take that foundation, and build on it in making decisions for the future of library work.
Some of the ways libraries are serving people as they build toward a positive future involves technology tools. A variety of tools exist now that did not even a few short years ago, or even a few months ago. Once example is the library in San Antonio, Texas, the Bexar County Digital Library http://bexarbibliotech.org/. Inaccurately referred to in many popular news stories as “bookless,” this library provides digital content and training to patrons. The flexibility of this digital format means that not only does this library reach out to an increasingly connected patron base, but also provides material in flexible ways. There is also the flexibility of checking out books at night, in the car (not while driving, please!), and otherwise outside the traditional service hours of libraries. Audio books can be listened to while doing housework, walking in the park, or on road trips in the car. E-books can be read on a variety of devices, and the availability is increasing. Many audio and e-books can also be returned early and another checked out immediately, making it more patron-friendly. Likewise, people can see how many patrons on a wait list ahead of them, and can check out a book immediately when notified a hold has become available.
Some patrons (and even librarians!) have a fear that an e-book or an audio book is somehow not a “real” book because they do not have a paper format in their hands. Books printed on paper have been good for sharing information over the centuries, and have some advantages over digital copies in longevity and accessibility, and in ease of sharing between people. But the format is not the only relevant criteria in providing or enjoying a book. Helping our patrons to use and to enjoy the content of the materials we provide for them should be the focus of everything we do. We will move into the future of providing information, the choice of tools we can provide to our patrons will continue to increase. As librarians, we need to stay on top of these changes and continue to build our knowledge to keep ourselves on the cutting edge of service.
And libraries have even more tools for connecting with our communities through other technological tools. The Chattanooga Public Library has reshaped their library’s fourth floor to make it a technology-friendly area for the community. “The 4th floor is a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts.” (http://chattlibrary.org/4th-floor) By providing the tools and training for people to use in their professional and personal lives, we are providing information and ideas and tools to help people. This may require some flexibility of thought on the part of librarians, as was seen in Chattanooga – thinking about the work we do in new ways requires putting together ideas and strategies for connecting with our communities. http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2013/aug/11/rock-star-librarians/
As we move toward the future of libraries, they may not look exactly as they have in the past – and that is okay. The communities we serve are always going to be changing and evolving and growing, and we need to keep up with them. The various ways we provide service will continue to change, and we have the opportunity to provide the best ways to train and provide tools for our community to learn and use and create information. The future of librarianship is an exciting one!