The closing panel on the challenges facing future libraries and strategies for addressing them was moderated by Ken Haycock, Research Professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Panelists were Susan Hildreth, Executive Director of the Peninsula Library System, and Kim Bui-Burton, Community Services Director, City of Monterey. The following is an edited summary of the discussion.
Susan: We still have the challenge of the community understanding and acknowledging what we do. We can address that by embedding ourselves in the community. Some individuals in our institutions and communities are not ready for this. A recent report, Rising to the Challenge by the Aspen Institute, addresses many of the issues. The Gates Foundation is closing its investment in libraries and identifying thought partners like Aspen to create a framework for discussing libraries in the 21st century, including key characteristics of libraries as people, assets, and platforms. We don’t just dispense information, but we connect it with people. Getting great connectivity and providing a variety of formats are some of the most outstanding challenges we have right now.
Kim: One of the biggest challenges is funding. When times are good there is enough money for the library; in tough times, they are one of the first things to be examined. We are in that fight over and over again. Monterey is a tourist community; this conference center is a way of selling hotel rooms. There is a connection between serving the community through free services like the library and hospitality services like hotels and restaurants.
The conference center was built in the 1970s and needs to be rebuilt. [Editor’s Note: Rebuilding will begin in late 2015 and will continue for about 18 months, which means that IL 2016 will be held entirely in the Monterey Marriott hotel.] This will get more funding for the city and therefore libraries. Support libraries by not working directly in them.
Ken: The Monterey Public Library is not in the business of library services; it is for the people of Monterey. The public good is dead; now we have the public value. How do we show that there is value here in investing in the library?
Susan: Libraries are “free”; the recreation world used to be like that but it is now expected to bring in revenue. People have the perception that if it is free, it is worth less. If people have needs, they pass the library by. We need to hold events for the leaders so they can see what the library does.
Kim: Thinking strategically about the impact of library services is very important. The ability to show the impact we are having in people’s lives is critical. How do we determine that impact? Libraries are not constantly in communication with their users. California has a deeply embedded culture of free library services, which is not true throughout the country. The library is nice to have, but it is not a “need to have” service. It can be challenging to get the “need to have” message across. We must articulate why the library is a basic service in the community; it needs to develop partnerships with other community departments, so that the partnership organization will defend the library funding.
Ken: How do we reposition ourselves as critical infrastructure? People know why they support the fire and police departments, but do they know why they support the public library?
Susan: We need to be prepared to listen to city planners, etc. and understand their needs.
Kim: When the Affordable Care Act was launched, we knew there would be a large impact on public libraries for access to that information. The role of the library became the mediator between the general public and public services, which is one of our most valuable aspects. The library provides a much more welcoming and helpful atmosphere than that of many public services.
Susan: Another value we have is being a place where people can use the wi-fi, etc. We need to make sure everybody knows what the library has to offer—a place where they can be welcomed.
Ken: Some libraries have repositioned themselves as community centers, but they are finding that there are already community centers. Who is providing services to the greatest number of people at lowest cost? How do you respond to that?
Kim: It is critical that you can collaborate to tear down silos and be open to identify your unique role. Libraries are not really community centers; they are community knowledge centers. We are at a point where we can have those discussions. What is in the best interest of our audiences?
Susan: Knowledge management and literacy are important because you don’t find them in community centers.
Ken: How do we establish a national, state, and local research agenda?
Susan: The IMLS has funded research, but we need to have a broader conversation about that. The Gates Foundation has identified some key indicators of value. The impact issue is challenging and complicated. There are different pockets of data about literacy that are collected, but it is hard to pull them all together. Are we showing the best return for our funders?
Kim: There is a lot of high quality data that is not being aggregated and synthesized for decision matters. What should be the unique expertise of our professional staff that’s different from a teacher, social worker, community center staff, etc.?
Susan: Staffing strategies, patterns, and costs in libraries are challenging and should change in the next 20 years. Entry level staff should receive skills at the entry level and then identify deeper expertise at the master’s level. Our unique skills are in connecting individuals with what they need. Even though we have lost the battle of reference, we still have a role in helping our customers to be as literate as possible in the world of information. We can be guides to help people succeed. We are there to supplement and complement what is being presented in a required setting and help them to be successful.
Kim: We are taught to be welcoming to all. We don’t have an agenda; we really are there to facilitate, which is rare in these days. We are open to lifelong learning.
Susan: Read BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google by John Palfrey. It is a description of the unique roles that libraries can play in the digital age. [Editor’s note: John Palfrey keynoted CIL 2015; my blog posting on that is here.]