I was a little irked and befuddled by Seth Godin’s post about the future of libraries today, to be honest.
Like Joyce Valenza, librarian extraordinaire, I admire his work a great deal. And I don’t want to come across sounding like some “stuck in the mud” or defensive and staid librarian. Though there is some merit in his point, I think the picture he painted was a bit misleading.
I found myself wondering why he didn’t seem to get the vitality of many of our “wired libraries” or understand that libraries are(and have often been) the salvation of the economically/socially underserved/elderly/children, especially in this dicey economy. And that libraries are not just warehouses for checkout but are still widely used for internet access, guest speakers, tech trainings, job hunting, teen hang-outs, reference support, children’s programming, teen mentorship progams, parent trainings on computer safety, community meetings, book groups, social events, and yes, DVD borrowing. And that many of our websites are twittering, facebooking, meebo-ing and leading by providing tutorials, widgets and links to help keep our customer’s informed and current?
But then I thought if he didn’t understand, then are public libraries, (or school libraries), really telling their stories? If they were, wouldn’t the average taxpayer know what is amazing about their libraries? There are libraries that are so clearly vital to their communities like the Seattle Public library or the Charlotte Mecklenberg library that even if you’ve never been there, you are aware of their libraries. Our local community library is also that way. I know that because they do a great job of telling their stories.
Now, I do agree with Seth that we need to be helping train leaders as information sherpas and with Joyce’s inspiring message that librarians need to get on the bandwagon and grab the opportunity to lead.
And while it is vital that libraries stay current and relevant, I think it is also really about relationships and communication. If we have a relationship with the community we serve, then we know what is important to them and that’s what we provide.
Because after all, we can complain that our patrons/customers/students don’t come to us, or that we are only providing a narrow service (as Godin notes) or we can get busy finding out what it is our community needs/wants by building strong relationships with the community. And then we can do it, share it, and then communicate what we are doing.
We have to understand the community we serve. And that involves talking to them, gathering feedback from them, and marketing to them. It involves telling our story. It involves good design in telling our story. It involves that human relationship conveyed through our policies, our websites, our social networking presence, and our physical spaces. A library should be an experience. Like going to your favorite coffee shop, or bookstore, you should “feel” the library’s vibe when you visit their website or walk in their doors.
We may be completely ‘virtual’ someday, or become more of a community gathering/information sharing space or be cyberarians, but even then, it will be about providing what is needed, what will lead people forwards, and what will create safe launching points for the future.
Addendum: Check out some examples of libraries which serve their communities in these heartfelt responses to Scott McLeod’s blog post.