July 29, 2017 - From the July, 2017 issue

ALA Assesses the Future of Libraries in Our Civic Infrastructure

Planning ahead for future technologies, populations, and economies is a critical function of any urban institution. Now, TPR looks at how one civic institution—the library—is synthesizing lessons from other industries to build next-generation, innovative public spaces for our cities. In this interview, Miguel Figueroa of the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries explains how trends—from demographic shifts, to the evolving retail industry, to new restaurant design, to online media—can inform the role of libraries in our civic infrastructure, as well as how they occupy the built environment.


Miguel Figueroa

“A lot of the trends we watch come down to ideas of space. I like looking at what’s happening in hotels, restaurants, and retail, because they tell us how consumers might start behaving in spaces.” —Miguel Figueroa

As the first director of the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries, share with us the center’s core mission, and what enticed you to take on this responsibility.

Miguel Figueroa: The Center started about three years ago, and a lot of it is modeled on the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums, created about nine years ago. The idea is to have someone standing outside the immediate environment of the profession to think about the big changes happening in other industries and how they might impact our profession.

My primary job is to serve as a resource. I scan broadly across industries and sectors to assemble a greater understanding of the trends happening in the larger world, and then work with librarians and library professionals to ask: “What will these trends have to do with the values libraries promote and the value we provide to communities?”

In the process, we get opportunities to talk with non-library professionals about their experiences, and the implications that those might have for libraries. We get a sense of not only what we are thinking about for the future of libraries, but also what other groups are thinking about the future of libraries: How do we fit into their larger visions, and what specific ideas might they have that we can execute or establish greater learning from?

Finally, we want to bring people who are interested in these trends together. We believe that when we talk, not just in our individual libraries, but as a broad collective, we can come up with a lot more inventive solutions.

Share some of the trends that the Center has identified, and how they enhance core library values.

It’s everything from the aging of our population, to connected learning, to concern around anonymity, and even the rise of fandoms.

Often, trends have immediate implications for libraries: An aging population might mean that we need to extend our services, or incorporate adaptive services or technologies. But we also think more broadly: If people are living longer, might they work longer? Might they end up pursuing second or even third careers, and therefore need to retool their educational skills? That would be an avenue for them to come back into libraries as students who want to learn a new skill.

We also talk about trends like the sharing economy. Sharing is certainly a value for libraries. But as we watch this wealth of new for-profit and not-for-profit movements that look at sharing a growing number of tools, dinners and meals, rooms in your house, we see that they’re sharing in a very different way from us.

A lot of the trends we watch come down to ideas of space. I like looking at what’s happening in hotels, restaurants, and retail—for example, the growth of fast-casual or quick-service restaurants. More and more restaurants are creating spaces where seating is flexible and easily rearranged, and where you are invited not simply to dine, but also to bring your laptop. They’ll have charging stations and Wi-Fi networks so that you can extend your stay. These are interesting choices to us because they tell us how consumers might start behaving in spaces: that they’re more likely to rearrange chairs, or walk in with the expectation that there should be power outlets and readily available Wi-Fi.

Libraries have adopted many of those things. But in a way, some of these restaurants, and even hotel lobbies, are trying to become the “third spaces” that libraries have traditionally been. They’re trying to give people the impression that you can come in and spend the whole day there. Sure, you can—but you usually have to pay something as a trade-off. Libraries have to position themselves as being just as appealing as those spaces, but also as a public good, because we believe in the fundamental value of people coming together into a free space.

There are so many different directions that these trends can go. I’m never surprised when somebody says, “You haven’t thought about this trend from the perspective of the children’s librarian,” or “bookmobiles,” or whatever it may be. When we all think together about these trends, we realize how many ways they fit in to the work that we’re all trying to accomplish.

A recent provocative article in Tablet was titled “Think Google Killed the Library? Think Again.” Amazon, counter-intuitively, is now investing in brick and mortar. What are your thoughts about the future of how reading materials—given their ubiquitous online availability—will be distributed in America?

In addition to that piece, some articles that have caused me to think more about our brick-and-mortar outlets are about the demise of traditional retail locations. More and more retailers are consolidating or completely closing their locations because Amazon and online retail have made them obsolete.

Similarly, a lot of the physical information that libraries used to house—the books, the articles—have now become more available online. It would be easy to think, “We don’t need libraries as physical outlets anymore because it’s all online.” But in truth, the best libraries are not spaces strictly to house information. They’re spaces where you can do lots of different things with that information. Providing you with the physical space to both do that by yourself, and also to interact with other members of your community to accomplish that, is incredibly important.

In all those articles about retail, we hear about how the successful retailers are pivoting away from just being transactional—for sales—to being experiential—for learning and exposure. Look at places like Sephora: It’s super easy to buy make-up online, but it’s great to have a space where you can try make-up on, test different products, and get advice.

The best libraries have always been that. They’re spaces where you can try different technologies and test out different information sources. They’re spaces where you can remix those information products to create something entirely new. Whether through maker spaces, group study rooms, or production studios at libraries, they’re places where you have access to information, equipment, and professionals who can help you make the most of your experience with these information objects.

What is the Center finding in the way of evolving partnerships that advance your mission, but don’t compromise the civic and social values of community libraries?

Advertisement

We look at partnerships in a lot of different ways, including colocation and shared services. Both academic and public libraries are trying to take advantage of the traffic that comes into these reputable spaces to expose people to more services that would be beneficial to them. In an academic library, it might be a tutoring or writing center. In a public library, it could be any number of city services, immigration services, or even passport services.

Here in Chicago, it was recently announced that the Chicago Public Library will be working with the Chicago Public Housing Authority to integrate branch libraries into housing for older adults and low-income people. Those agencies have been very smart in realizing that this model doesn’t benefit only those particular populations; it is about bringing communities together. They know that lots of people will come in to visit the library, and that is an opportunity to bring traditionally marginalized people together with other groups so that we can all rise. That’s a really innovative approach.

When we went through the health insurance change, libraries became venues for health professionals to talk to people and do healthcare signups. There has also been a lot of great movement on how public libraries can use information resources to advance student achievement in public schools. These are great ideas that address the bigger issues, not just the specific interests of the library or other agencies.

In California, where more than $100 billion has been spent on new schools over the past decade, there’s often real resistance to colocation—usually over the issue of who is responsible for managing the facility. What have you learned about the challenges of public collaboration?

I think colocation is most ideal for agencies or departments that are already part of a similar service, or have a similar audience. One of the tough things with hybrid public-school libraries. and hybrid public-academic libraries, is managing the expectations across those user sets.

The lessons learned are that we have to design spaces and staffing models so that they address the differing needs of users. We can’t assume that the public library can immediately provide the same services of a school library and school librarian. There has to be careful thought about what a school library and librarian offers to a school-age child, and how you accomplish that in the same space. That’s not as easy as it seems.

If collocation is thought of as a money-saving model—“let’s just sub in this for that”—it’s not going to work well. There has to be a well thought-out approach to each use.

Let’s turn to the services that the Center offers to libraries and their boards across the country. What are these libraries and their leadership asking from you, and what opportunities do you see to model future library relationships?

For librarians and professional staff, the conversation tends to be about how innovation begins by looking outward. It’s easy to get focused on the day-to-day operations that sustain our current services. But while we’re doing that, the world is changing around us.

For boards and trustees, it’s about thinking beyond the nostalgic vision of the library as a place strictly for books and reading, to thinking about it as part of a system that contributes a whole wealth of goods to the public.

That conversation expands the idea of what a library can be, and how a library needs to be designed. People start to better understand how trends like virtual reality could actually fit into a library, and help fulfill its mission. They start to understand why, perhaps, the library director is pushing for fewer bookshelves and more open or collaborative spaces; or why the budget has increased, because we’re providing new technology to accommodate new formats of information.

Lastly, let’s pivot to how changing technologies—e-books, apps, or even presidential tweets—impact how we receive and disseminate information. What do library science professionals, and the Center, have to teach us about how information will be disseminated in the future?

It isn’t necessarily in our interest, I don’t think, to ask, “What’s the next container that’s going to come out?” Our question is, “How do we make sure we’re ready for the next container, no matter what it is, and that we’re there on the front lines to help our users experience it?” We need spaces where we can provide people with first points of exposure to these tools.

This is already happening in both academic and public libraries. Libraries have had technology classes on Facebook and social media, or even on the Internet of Things and smartphone technologies. When e-books first came out, lots of libraries had classes and instructions to help people work the Kindles that they got for the holidays.

In June, Facebook’s Oculus announced it was partnering with the California State Library to provide Rift equipment to a number of public libraries. Why? Because Facebook saw that if virtual reality is going to take off as the next format of information, then consumers need to have access to and know how to use that technology, and libraries can be primary partners in that.

No matter what the container is, we can invest a little bit of money to allow anyone from the public to come in and use these resources, and become more familiar with both their benefits and their pitfalls.

Advertisement

© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.