For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
November 10, 2005 - Library of the Future Matters for What Doesn't Change
Recently, I wrote an article for a professional magazine about "the 21st century public library."
I outlined the broad process through which most public buildings are designed and constructed. The idea was to give librarians who haven't gone through all this a template to follow and to tweak.
Since then, I've been thinking more generally about the question, "What will tomorrow's library look like?"
Most futurists run wild with this kind of question. They want to talk about all the things that will change, the things that will be different.
Here's what I think: the heart of our business will not change. The library will continue to be, at its core, a public place where books and people come together.
The shape of the book has evolved and multiplied. We have books on tape, books on CD, books as downloadable mp3 files, and ebooks. But for the foreseeable future, the common hard- and softback book is cheap, handy, and remarkably durable.
Like many other libraries around the country, we have been experimenting with various merchandising techniques. In one respect, the public library is taking a step closer to the bookstore.
Our computer system lets us track exactly what the public wants. Eighty percent of that is the really popular stuff. Tomorrow's libraries will buy in bulk, using "just in time" delivery methods.
Those same statistics have conclusively demonstrated something else: when we display our materials face out (as opposed to spine-out), they move a whole lot faster. At our Lone Tree Library, for instance, it is not uncommon for us to have to refresh our displays 14-16 times in a day.
The activity of making alluring public displays of new materials is many times more effective than our more traditional production of bibliographies and bookmarks. One big purpose of librarianship is to move those materials. Books belong in hands and hearts, not on shelves.
We carry more than books, of course -- although maybe "of course" is a little self-delusional. I referred last week to a recent international study. MOST people still don't know that libraries have online databases, which are a significant public expenditure, and provide high quality information 24 hours a day. We've got to work on that.
Many people are still amazed to find videos and CDs in libraries, too.
So if public libraries are becoming more "business like," and more sensitive to new formats, then what differentiates them from commercial book, movie, and music sellers?
There are at two answers.
First, although we may see all public libraries tilting toward livelier and more popular collections, there will still be, at least in larger buildings, a DEPTH of collections.
That is, you will be able to find the classics not available elsewhere. You'll be able to find the definitive works in a field, even if they are no longer current. You'll be able to find the series that prove perennial.
Second, and perhaps most important, public libraries will continue to be public space, staffed by conscientious public servants. While there is certainly an economic dimension to our lives, we are more than mere consumers.
The glory of the public library is that everyone walks through the door an equal: the rich man is the same as the poor, the old the same as the young. All have the same right to ask questions, to seek information, to receive the intelligent and courteous service of experts.
Many things will change in libraries. But that will never change.