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The Future of the Library

library futures

Thanks to Google, e-books, Amazon.com, and book store cafés among other factors, libraries are changing at a breakneck speed. Libraries used to be where you looked things up, and now you can look anything up practically at any time if your smartphone is within easy reach, which for many it is all the time. But what about the community development role of the library in society? By not using the library as a resource in the same way, are we losing a sense of community when so much information is at our fingertips without ever having to get up out of bed? Are children losing out on the wonder of strolling down aisles filled with adventure and fantasy and picking out a book that makes their eyes get wide with delight? Are adults missing out on the quiet and contemplative space that only a library can provide? Do people who can't afford smart phones, laptops and desktops have equal access to information and ideas? How is library changing and how is the changing role of libraries affecting communities?

I decided to ask all these questions and more to Pat Duke, the Library Director at the Wilsonville Public Library in Wilsonville, Oregon. I got to speak with Pat in relation to another project and was struck by his passion for libraries and his insight about their role in society. Pat's first job at a library was in 1980 as a student shelver at the University Research Library at UCLA. He moved on to be the circulation supervisor at the Chemistry Library at UC Berkely in the 1980s and 1990s. And in 1996 he began his tenure with the Wilsonville Public Library and is now the Library Director there. "I am responsible for running the Library. That includes day to day activities, purchasing material and getting it on the shelf, programming at all levels, marketing, circulation, customer service, and patron experience. Along with that comes planning- both strategic and tactical, creating relationships with others in the community where our goals overlap, other stakeholder relationships (Council and City Administration, primary among them) and fund raising," he says.

Below is my interview with Pat about the library as an institution, how it's changed, how it'll continue to change and some things about it that will likely never change. It is a long interview, but it is worth reading to the end as Pat's passion and insight will inspire you not only to pick up a book and read it, but to visit your local library post haste.

Blooming Rock: What are some trends you've seen in libraries over the years?

Pat Duke: I think one of the biggest trends is a real focus on the users, at different levels. People don't necessarily realize that we have many different collections and services targeted at different populations. Each of the collections has a purpose that reaches back to our fundamental mission of reading (for pleasure and education). Literacy, literature, and education for all regardless of station in life or age, and privacy and freedom of expression and exploration are also part of the library's mission.  The trend over the years is to sharpen the focus on these services, and to seek out opportunities to expand their impact, sometimes by changing how we do things and sometimes by creating new services to support these existing goals. Sometimes movements create conflict between goals.

In terms of trends in customer service and library experience, Nordstrom has had a big impact on libraries. Historically, and if left to our own devices, we will create services and policies that reflect the average librarian's sensibilities (feel free to insert cultural stereotypes here). We'll worry about having library cards when checking material out, whether kids are loud, fines, and 'appropriate' collections. We have realized that fines and rules often work to undermine our goals.

You can't expect teenagers to use the library if we are yelling at them all of the time. It is ok for a staff member to waive fines for a parent that checked out 10 items for their kids last time and is a few days late. We care not very much about the fines or even a bit of disturbance and very much about whether teens and parents are reading.  So the focus is on creating an environment that is relevant to peoples' lives and that they want to be in.That is, face to face customer service (smile, ask how their day is going, well trained, efficient, caring, respectful, flexible) and creating library environments that attract the populations we are focused on.

However, teens want a different environment than retirees; how do we do that in the same building? Fines are revenue, and for some that is an extremely important consideration. How do we balance these things? How do we serve our targeted populations and still create an environment where all are welcome?  This is a significant ongoing focus for us.

As far as trends in collections go, let me start with an article written in the mid-1970?s that argued that libraries should "give 'em what they want" (published in Library Journal, written by the director of Baltimore Public). Collections and services began moving away from focusing on the traditional librarian view that only the 'best' material belonged in a library. There has been a steady trend to open collections to more popular material and to focus on the needs/wants of our users. So, the 1970?s music collection of opera and classical music now contains all genres. There is much more popular material in fiction/nonfiction book collections, movies are common place, some libraries have computer games. Folks don't necessarily realize that these collections are part of a trend that has been marching on for 40 years, and is closely aligned with the ideas I mentioned above.

And finally to trends in programming: we are working to focus our services on real-time interests and needs while staying true to our historical mission. For example, we have computer classes along with author talks. I'm going to throw in the work at the Reference desk here. Much of a reference librarian's job is evolving from helping people and students to find resources to answer whatever their need might be to helping folks deal with immediate life needs or technology. We very routinely help people with their new tablets to download material. We help people to apply for jobs and with their resumes to the extent we can. We proctor tests. Wilsonville Public Library even provides notary services.

So the overall trend here is to focus on the real and near term needs of the public so that we can truly be a resource for people and families, while always keeping in mind our fundamental mission of literature and education.

Blooming Rock: How have libraries changed since 1960? 1980? 2000? Now?

Pat Duke: 1960: That's the year I was born. But let me project. Obviously there is print and if there are LPs they are classical. The collections are much more staid. Services are rule based. Also, even though it's an image from the late 1940?s, think about the movie It's a Wonderful Life. If George Bailey hadn't been born and hadn't met/married Mary, who was she? A librarian spinster. What does that mean for the cultural image of libraries?

1980?s: Technology starts to change libraries in the 1980?s. We move to online circulation systems. Card catalogs disappear. It's a big deal. There used to be this set of books called the National Union Catalog. It was the list of collections of the Library of Congress as well as many many libraries throughout the country, and was how you could find out who owned a book that was not in a local collection. These were produced, later on microfiche, into the 1990?s. Now, think about that as an image of how things got done. Computer monitors were green text screens connected to a main frame. The Internet was still a ARPANet project connecting military bases, with a few universities connected so that researchers could access 'supercomputers'. I got my first e-mail account in 1987 while working at UC Berkeley.

2000: That was just yesterday, wasn't it? The Internet is here. E-books are coming, but aren't here yet. The library is different to the extent of the penetration of the Internet in people's lives. We are not carrying it around yet, but it is clearly coming. The 2000 library has a large collection of reference books, which are used to provide a couple of pages of information on just about any topic.

In 2015, the reference collection is now fundamentally gone. The library is doing computer classes for folks, mostly but not exclusively for older folks. (What is a mouse? What is an operating system? How to get an e-mail account.?) We still do a few of those, but are more likely to walk someone through their tablet or smart phone.

Audiobooks and movies now represent one-third to a half of the library's circulation. The Wilsonville Public Library was expanded in 2000 or so. How big should it be?  Well, how many items are in the collection? How big is your population? Bigger population means more books means more library. The current library was built to hold 130K items and for a population of about 30K in 2020 or 2030. Of course, we also created 3 small meeting rooms within the library and two large, rentable, rooms for the public.

Also, in 2000, computers in the library are still a big deal. Many people don't have access to the Internet and can't purchase computers (which still cost thousands of dollars). We provide that as part of our mission to provide access to information – the Internet of course – and provide access to tools that people need to be successful. Already, job applications are going online. People find a job using Monster.com.

Now: We are undergoing a fundamental change. E-books are an expectation. This is a big deal for much of the population, not just because they use them in somewhat increasing numbers, but because they, in part, represent the 'modern' library. For me, e-books are a format, a change in the point of access. LP albums became 8 tracks (briefly) became cassettes became CDs. VHS became DVD became Blu-ray. Books become e-books. Audiobooks on CD become downloadable audiobooks.  This goes along with access gains that were created starting in the 1980?s with online catalogs. Once those were in place we started looking for ways to make the catalog accessible from home. That was in the 1990?s with the internet and home computers commonplace.

Now we routinely look for ways to extend services to patrons where ever they are. We have a collection of online services. We don't add anything that is not accessible from home, or now from a smartphone. E-books are a natural addition. It is all good.

Blooming Rock: What do you think the library of the future will function like?

Pat Duke: It will largely be in the hands of patrons. Patrons may demand things like remote checkout for users of online material, self checkout at the library with the ability to reserve, checkout, and pay for things if necessary, reserving meeting rooms online, computers inside the library available for as long as folks need them, and robust wireless access.

Librarians will still work to connect people with information and ideas. Programming is one way, but the programming will not necessarily be in the library. For example, the Wilsonville Library is part of the history programs at McMenamins. We take services and programs to people.

The library is a place to interact with ideas, literature, and each other. We do all we can to stay out of the patron's way. We help connect.

Blooming Rock: What do you think the library of the future will look like?

Pat Duke: I think we continue to look at the population and focus on their needs. It must come from them. Here's a near term example: early literacy. Yeah, many people know that it is good to read to kids. It is good to talk to kids. But kids who are not read to and talked to are behind when they get to kindergarten. If they are behind in kindergarten, they may struggle to read at grade level in the 3rd grade. If they are not reading at grade level in the third grade they are at much higher probability to not graduate high school. Folks worried about graduation rates generate programs that focus on high school, or maybe middle school, or even elementary school. But the difference can be whether the child was read to before kindergarten. Longitudinal studies show that the earlier a guardian starts reading the more likely the child will be successful in school. For grade school and up, schools own the conversation about what kids need. But who owns the conversation for kids under 5 years? Maybe that's public libraries? So then you have to think about what that means for library buildings.

We live in an increasingly isolated culture, for individuals I mean. The internet certainly creates some of those connections that people need. I think we need physical spaces for people to come together. Along these lines, the American Public Library is one of the last non-commercial spaces that are left. If you are in a place in your life where you just need a place to hang out, you come to the library. No one will bother you. It happens every day in every library in this country. I knew a guy who lost his job in the Great Recession. He was out of work for a considerable time, and each day he'd get up, get dressed, and come to the library. He'd look for a job, read the paper, and I don't know what else. It was his way of continuing to work, continuing his schedule. These things are important.

Blooming Rock: What current services are going to go away?

Certain collections are threatened. Digital collections are an obvious target…movies, audiobooks, CD music. These may disappear entirely. I'm not sure at this point. Growth of the e-book use is flattening. Folks largely aren't talking about the disappearance of the book any more, or if they are the time frame is extended.

I see a de-emphasis in the role of circulation of physical materials. I believe that we'll move that circulation largely to self service. That means that circulation staff are less important. The circulation desk is less important.

Blooming Rock: What services will be added?

Just like the answer for what is going away, I think of this as an evolution. Services that we are already providing will be emphasized like programming for adults (mostly older adults) and life long learning. Also we may begin to think of the library as a destination with access to technology that is unattainable for some, hands on help connecting folks to resources, comfortable space to be or be together, and kids spaces that encourage learning and exploring. The online library is extremely important as well.

Blooming Rock: What are the factors that are leading libraries to change?

The most important factor is internal. Librarians want to use the resources available to impact people. Librarians are excited by the internet, and the notion of the library reaching into folks homes, or their pocket. Librarians also see users every day inside the library and work to create and emphasize services for them. Librarians are excited by new technology that they believe will help them help patrons. Librarians were excited by the notion of having movies – on VHS tape- to check out to people. They were excited to have computers in the building for folks. And they are excited to have collections of e-books and other online resources. It never stops.

Blooming Rock: What would you say the current role of libraries is in society today?

Pat Duke: The American Public Library really is the People's University. It provides access to books, programming and other resources as public goods  to encourage reading and literacy and education for all ages. It is available to everyone. It is a place where people can access technology. It is a meeting space with hands-on, unbiased, nonjudgemental assistance to improve their lives.

Blooming Rock: How has this role changed over time?

Pat Duke: It hasn't. The only thing that has changed are the ways we expand our offerings of services and the people we offer them to.

The Public Library of the 1930's did not emphasize children's services. The Wilsonville Public Library currently provides programming to 500+ kids and parents each week and circulation of kids books represent a third of our circulation.  Technology is another example.  Further, each of these are additions to services. When we put computers in the library, we didn't take out collections or cut any programming, we just added computers and ancillary services.

Blooming Rock: What will this role be in the future?

Pat Duke: The same. The role is the same. How we will do it? Well, that's another story.  I'm giving you my guess about how that will be. Right or wrong about the methods, the role is the same – access to books, access to information,  and access to education for every age. Are there other sources? Yup. But we provide it as a public good to all – period.

Blooming Rock: What do librarians do currently?

Pat Duke: Outside of eating donuts? Librarians are responsible for all collections and programming in the library. (By the way, librarians don't check out or shelve books as a main thrust of their job. Those are Library Clerks.) Specific Librarian jobs:  purchase material, assign call numbers (we still use the Dewey Decimal System), provide reference and reader's advisory services, plan and produce programming – in the Children's section that means perform storytime and other preschool programming and provide outreach to communities that can't access the library. Front line librarians focus on selecting material and providing direct reference and reader's advisory services, supervisory and upper management librarians spend more time planning and strategizing these services, budgeting, building changes, etc.

Blooming Rock: How will the job of librarians change in the future?

Pat Duke: Applying technological solutions to user needs is probably the most important change in the role of some librarians. Using technology to execute our roles more efficiently is vital. When I started at Wilsonville, I'd fax my book orders into our book supplier, now it's completely different.

Blooming Rock: Do you think libraries will eventually become obsolete or will they always be a part of communities?

Pat Duke: Libraries remain extremely popular in the United States. Folks who are much more capable than me are experimenting with services and creating new models. My thoughts above are fairly short sighted. Regardless, I believe that access to literature, literacy, and education for all people is still and will remain a need in the US..

A recent study out of University of Oklahoma found that 80 percent of respondents thought there should be warning labels on food that contains DNA. Outside of the 'you gotta be kidding' reaction, think about what that level of mind-numbing ignorance means as we as a society wrestle with issues around the manufacture of food, food safety, and the role of the market vs the health of citizens. Tell me that there is not a need for education, literacy, literature. Tell me that there is no need for a rich resource of information and argument from many sides and without a need to sell something. Tell me that there is not a need for a safe, non-judgmental place where people can come together to discuss the issues of their lives and learn from each other. Tell me that there is no need for parents to have the information and resources available so that they can truly be their children's first teacher, and ensure that their kids are ready and eager to learn when they get to school.

In my view, the future of libraries is less about libraries themselves and more about who we become as a people.

Blooming Rock: What do you think is the highest potential of libraries?

Pat Duke: The highest potential for libraries is for folks to think of libraries as the resource that they are, and for libraries to never stop evolving for the good of society.

Photo Credit: "Bookshelf Prunksaal OeNB Vienna AT matl00786ch" by Matl – own work (photography). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.