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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Future of the Public Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, February 22, 2015


What is the future of the Public Library?


This has always been a topic in the library world, as we would try to predict future needs of our libraries, and look for trends to better serve the public.


Now if you put librarians around a table and pose that question, you might see dazed expressions with little audible reaction hoping that someone else would start the discussion.


A report from the Aspen Institute last fall has helped bring the topic into focus as we all are trying to see those trends, and plan for the future needs of the public as it relates to libraries.


The summary states that we need to “Define the scope of the library’s programs, services and offerings, recognizing that this may lead to choices and trade-offs.”


Librarians tend to look at the past to identify trends for the future, but Aspen recommends, “You can’t allow tradition to get in the way of innovation.  There’s a need to respect the past, but it’s a mistake to revere your past.”


They point to Kodak, a company that clung to the past of selling film rather than leading the development of digital photographic equipment as an example of the need to change focus.


Part of the problem with predicting the future of library service is that the “next big thing” is not as clear as it used to be.  The raw materials of technology are spread evenly around our world today, and it is difficult to predict what might emerge and be useful to libraries.


Librarians are unsure of what will happen to the traditional paperbound “book” with the rise of eBooks, eMagazines, and various other eResources.  Traditional books are will be produced and read in record numbers in addition to eBooks.


There are some subject areas, such as Reference Titles, that are on the decline to the point that some publishers have literally gone out-of-business, but people continue to check out books from the library in record numbers.


And we aren’t going to “get it right” every time with every new move that we take in libraries.  Some things we try won’t work, and we will be surprised with some things we try that work better than expected.


My take on the future of libraries relates to the need that we need to keep humans at the front of the line in libraries, while implementing new technology where it serves the public in a positive manner.


Libraries need to keep humans answering our phones, while having other methods of connection to library services.  We need to have a person at the desk to help the public with their information needs.


Our society is quickly losing “places” where people gather to the computer in the home, the tablet you can carry around, and the smart phone that seems to occupy most of our time.


The Public Library can continue to be “that place” in our society where people come for information, programs, and entertainment.


My old line that the Public Library is the last public information desk in our communities continues to become more true by the day, as local, state, and federal offices continue to disappear and people are told to connect to those agencies by computer.  (and go to the Public Library for a computer if you don’t have one)


I think books will continue well into the future.  There is something magical about “seeing” information and text aside from computer screens that pretend to present information that looks like its paper counterpart.


Television was supposed to eliminate books in the 1950s, children’s books were predicted to end in the 1980s, videos were supposed to stop TV sales.


My favorite is that indexes in books would end libraries by the early 20th Century.


Some librarian in the future will likely download this 2015 article written by that old librarian Hall, and show where I was wrong, and where I was correct.