Wednesday, April 19, 2017

two words for public libraries

My office recently hosted a  library visioning round table discussion on the future of libraries. The topic: Library as Place.

The Wordle (at left) grows from a simple question we asked our participants:* What are two words you think of, when you think of the future of libraries? Community, Flexibility, and Opportunity were the big winners, but all of those other words are great too! This simple question comes from a summary paper of a conference at the Library of Congress in 2014, whose participants were also looking into the future of the library. Some of the participants seemed disappointed that they didn't come up with original words, but I think the fact that a few words were repeated is terrific, and shows that within the library service industry, its pretty clear which direction we're heading. Just looks at some of the other terms that came up: Diverse, Adaptable, Transformational, Evolving. Those are good words!

The overall discussion centered on what public libraries are doing to fill the role of Third Place in the lives of their patrons and users. Whether its for more formal, structured learning and programs, or more casual, drop-in use, the idea that libraries serve in this capacity more and more is a trend that seems to be increasing, even as libraries continue to shed the outdated model of a 'warehouse for books.' It seems pretty clear to those of us who use public libraries, that their need is just as central and vital to the education of the citizenry, even as the services they offer grows and expands to meet the needs of our increasingly interconnected, digitized, and virtual society. And that's really where the magic is: libraries provide that real space, with real human connections, in a world that is increasingly moving away from these types of connections. People want--and I believe, need--these connections, and are looking to the library as one place to get them.

The most pressing need from the library's point of view, is getting that message out to the segment of the populace that still views the library as they did when they were kids. Public libraries are notoriously bad at self-promotion and marketing. Given their budget constraints, and the expertise of the folks running the place, its no wonder that marketing is not something they excel at. Its just not in their wheelhouse, and the budget isn't there to hire the professional help they need to get the message out.

So we meet, we talk, we share, and we attempt to get a ground swell rising. What is the best way to share all of the wonderful things libraries can do? Some of the suggestions from our participants included interesting ways to bring the public into their space, hopefully including some that wouldn't normally come to the library. Ideas included:

Volunteer Fair - All of the local groups that need volunteers set up tables, and potential volunteers shop around for a cause they'd like to help.
Technology Fair - Tables where you can learn about various on-line databases the library offers, along with STEAM, audio/video editing, maker, telescopes, Girls Who Code, and other things available at the library.
Indoor Green Market - At the library, even a baby animal petting zoo in a plastic lined pen!
Town Government Fair - Tables for each department, staffed by town workers who explain what they do and how you can get services.

These programs, and so many others; from programmable robot dance contests, to simple brochures at the desk titled "I Didn't Know You Had That!" are helping to chip away at the old notions many still hold about what their library is, and what it could be. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Our public libraries are what we make them, and if we don't do it, no one else will.

Then where would we be?

* My personal thanks to all of the wonderful folks who came out last week to the Lunenburg Public Library last week. We had a great discussion, and I learned a lot. And thanks to Lunenburg for hosting us!

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