What is the future of the Library? What is the future of the Librarian? These are questions we hear and see discussed ad nauseum at conferences, in blogs, in our tea rooms. In reality the ‘future library’ has already snuck in the back door. We were just too focused on the discussion to notice.
There is no doubt that technology has changed libraries, and the role of the librarian, exponentially over the past thirty years. Over this time as librarians have adapted and taken on new roles and more responsibilities they have in fact become less adept at being able to succinctly describe their role, and more importantly less able to articulate their value.
Perhaps the library world thought it could just get by on its warm fuzzy factor… after all everyone seems to love libraries! I’ve never seen a library receive poor ratings on satisfaction surveys. Libraries have the power to have people protest at their closing down who have never walked into the building. In actuality, people love the idea of libraries more than the reality of the juxtaposition of books, shelves, space and people they are forced to interact with. What is it about the idea of libraries (more than the reality) that people are so committed to?
In light of this, the library world has a lot of questions it needs to answer:
What is the role of the library today?
What is the value of the librarian?
What is it about a library that makes people care about it?
What do people need from a library?
How do people use a library?
And most fundamentally of all – What do we want the library to be?
These are all questions we need to be able to answer – articulately, succinctly and passionately – if we are to regain control over our own future. Notice this does not include technology or tools but is about people, culture, and needs. In true librarian style we are instead having a pleasant leisurely conversation about it over tea and biscuits rather than understanding the urgency of the situation.
How might we, the library industry, design our own future?
There is no question that we are facing a paradigm shift of epic proportions that requires a complete reconsideration of the very foundations and ideas of the role and value of libraries and librarians. It’s messy, it will feel uncomfortable and take some getting used to, but we need to put down the tea and bickies and embrace design thinking. In its essence design thinking is a collaborative and human centred problem solving approach for solving complex business, organizational and social problems.
Design thinking offers an approach for the library world to strategically move forward, as co-authors of the future of libraries. It provides an opportunity to explore in a structured and meaningful way these philosophical questions and ‘problem find’, to then problem solve, appropriately.
Co-authoring and collaboration here does not mean a team of librarians, or even a team of librarians and designers, but a multidisciplinary team that represents all the people who have a stake in the library. This includes: librarians, designers, customers, vendors, service providers and other major stakeholders depending on the library’s context. Further to this, a human centred approach not only considers just the librarian or user or vendor. Instead design thinking ensures a holistic solution is designed that is sustainable and caters to all the humans involved, not just one segment.
The process is grounded in engaging and co-creating the future with and for all stakeholders with the human always at the centre. It is a proactive and future focused approach that is grounded in understanding the stories of the past and the current operating context.
Design thinking is already being used in libraries to rethink and redesign the future of libraries, as in this presentation by Scottish service design agency Snook:
We have to understand this is not about adding on, or adapting, or evolving, or rebuilding, but redesigning the very core of what a library is and means in today’s postmodern world.
Or will we be sipping our tea, eating our biscuits and talking about how important we are while the world moves on without us.