Libraries Transform

Community disruption is leading to new roles for libraries

January 4, 2016

Sari Feldman

I have spent the past several months traveling across the United States visiting libraries, learning about their transformative work, and doing a lot of listening. Over the course of my travels, I have discovered that the Libraries Transform campaign is the right message at the right time. Libraries of all types are transforming to find greater alignment with the needs of campus, public, and school communities. From California to Maine (with stops in Kentucky, Nebraska, and New York in between) powerful community disruption is leading to new roles for libraries and library professionals. While many librarians agree this is an exciting time for our profession, many are also anxious about an uncertain future.

The good news is that the Center for the Future of Libraries is providing guidance around the most challenging changes for library professionals. Trends such as the sharing economy and Big Data are worthy of discussion for libraries of all kinds. The sharing economy has given rise to unexpected collections: People are turning to their library for everything from seeds to plant in the ground to telescopes to point at the sky. Big Data may be the domain of libraries in the future (who better than librarians to handle massive amounts of information?), but thought leaders today are grappling with policies related to privacy, confidentiality, and free access that affect all libraries. We transform, but we do so while staying true to the core values that have enabled libraries to build trusted relationships with our customers and communities.

Staying true to core values has enabled us to build trusted relationships with our communities.

While these disruptions may feel like a sea change in libraries, our work remains grounded in an enduring ideal: People walk through our doors with ideas, ambitions, and challenges, and we meet them with resources that foster individual opportunity, options, and optimism. This is true for libraries of all types. Where our profession has the tendency to draw distinctions among libraries, I see more similarities than differences in our work. As part of the Libraries Transform launch, I visited four distinctive libraries that share a consistent focus on addressing community needs through collaboration.

  • Librarians from Thomson Elementary School in the District of Columbia are preparing tomorrow’s workforce by partnering with a service organization to deliver coding programs to students.
  • Librarians at George Washington University’s Gelman Library responded to an emerging research need for data from social media, developing a robust aggregator called Social Feed Manager.
  • D.C. Public Library is engaging instructors from local radio stations to help customers learn how to use its new recording studios.
  • The Smithsonian Libraries recognize the value of turning outward, making their collections accessible and engaging via experiential exhibits.

Today’s libraries are not for the faint of heart, but libraries have always been at the crossroads of a community at its best and worst. There is no question that libraries must continue to prioritize collections and the legacy of reading, but our value today is less about what we have for people and more about what we do for and with people.

At different points in my travel for Libraries Transform, I speak about my own career transformation. It’s a messy story—bad hair and all—that traverses the physical and the digital, from the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Library and Information Studies to the earliest incarnations of the internet to ALA’s Digital Content Working Group. Ours is a profession built with passion and perseverance. As libraries transform, our shared commitment to libraries as the center of campus, public, and school community life will ensure that libraries remain a vital part of the fabric that comprises our democratic society.