Defining “Transformation”

The very nature of what we do and how we do it is undergoing fundamental changes

May 14, 2013

Keith Michael Fiels

Libraries of all types are currently undergoing changes that most agree are transformative in nature.

But what do we mean when we talk about “transforming” libraries? We mean that we are not just dealing with quantitative change—doing more, for instance—but with qualitative change. This means fundamental change in the very nature of what we do and how we do it.

While the dramatic growth in the use of ebooks and other digital content has attracted the greatest media attention regarding library services in the past couple of years, equally dramatic changes are occurring in almost every dimension of our work.

The reality is that libraries are experiencing a number of transformations. These include fundamental changes in our:

  • communities
  • community relationships
  • user expectations and user services
  • collections
  • physical space
  • library workforce
  • library leadership

Communities, relationships

In the United States, as in much of the world, demographic changes are affecting communities of all sizes, including the continued urbanization of the US population as more and more people move from rural areas to cities. At the same time, new immigrants have also changed the demographics of communities large and small across the country.  The fact is, communities are changing—and libraries must continue to change with them.

As communities have changed, so has the relationship of the library to the community. The traditional library was a passive provider, reacting to community needs. The library opened its doors, and people came in to use its materials and services.

Today, the library must be proactive; it must engage its community. Librarians need to be out in the community, working with elected officials and community members to support the community’s aspirations, agendas, and goals. How can the library help reduce crime, increase high school graduation rates, or help people find jobs? Increasingly, libraries are serving as conveners, bringing community members together to articulate their aspirations and then innovating in order to become active partners and a driving force in community development and community change.


Library collections are also being transformed. While traditional collections consisted of books and printed periodicals located within the library, libraries now also provide ebooks, e-journals, and downloadable digital files. Last year, for example, a typical academic library spent two-thirds of its materials budget on digital content. A growing number of academic libraries now maintain institutional repositories of digital content created by faculty and staff.

Increasingly, school libraries are linked to classrooms and to students’ homes, and public libraries are coming to see their website as their virtual branch. Libraries are interacting with users through social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. More and more libraries are actively involving users in the creation of content and the crowdsourcing of curatorial functions.

Customer experience

Another area of transformation is that of user expectations and user services. The current generation is the first to be born digital, and they cannot remember an era without the internet or handheld devices. Increasingly, users expect services to be available 24/7.

Transformed libraries focus on the customer experience and how it can be improved. Many libraries are now looking at a “concierge” model, with a emphasis on highly personal assistance. Today’s users also expect interactivity and want to actively participate in their library experience. This means more active collaboration between users and librarians.

New expectations reward creation and collaboration. Increasingly, librarians are now embedded in the community as a way to better serve groups such as seniors or small businesses. Responding to the changing nature of work, they provide an increasing array of services that support small business development and job creation. Some libraries now offer business “incubator” services and spaces.

Others are creating media labs, where users have access to the tools and technologies they need to create their own content for sharing on a communitywide basis. They are creating makerspaces, where people can build and discover. Using gaming and play, they are creating more interactive environments for users of all ages.

E-government is also transforming the library. With more and more government information and government assistance now available only online, libraries are effectively becoming the most important single place where people can go to access government services, with librarians providing the professional assistance they need, at no up-front cost to the users, to access and navigate these services.

Physical space

The transformation of physical space in libraries is another new reality. While the 19th-century library had books at its center, the transformed library is centered around the user experience. It is not just an architectural restatement but a reconceptualization of the library as physical space to reflect new functions and the new forms that follow from them.

Flexible-space designs allow for changing uses: community meeting rooms; computer labs; and classrooms and temporary offices that support digital inclusion, user-created content, small business development, and community dialog and learning.

Academic libraries are creating open information commons that encourage the networking of technologies and people. Libraries of all types are looking at collaborative and creativity spaces, makerspaces, and “idea boxes”—areas designed to stimulate the imagination.

Workforce development and leadership

The transformation of the library workforce is also well underway. Gone is the stereotypical librarian of the past, barricaded behind a desk. Today’s librarian may be roaming within the library, interacting with and assisting users, or may be an expert embedded in the community.

These librarians are tech savvy and are continuously learning about new technologies, working collaboratively with users to solve problems, answering questions, and assisting in the creation of user-created content. Just as important, they are increasingly being encouraged to experiment, to learn from successes, and, occasionally, to fail.

Which brings us to the transformation of library leadership: In the traditional library, hierarchical organization and management reign. In the transformed library, managers now serve as team leaders and technical knowledge is more diffused. Librarians are encouraged to “lead from beneath,” to innovate and to experiment. The goal of the manager is to capture the creativity of team members, to inspire and to empower.

Teaming for transformation

When ALA members got together to create the Association’s current strategic plan, the transformation of libraries emerged as a central theme, right alongside advocacy and education. Throughout the Association, the tens of thousands of librarians who create and participate in conference programs, publications, and online learning know that the sharing of innovative and best practices is a core function of our Association. Our strength is in the collective creativity we bring to the challenges we face as individual library practitioners.

This transformational focus is also strongly reflected in the work of President Maureen Sullivan (community engagement, transformational leadership), Past President Molly Raphael (ebooks and e-content), and President-Elect Barbara Stripling (service innovation). It is also reflected in the work of virtually every division (examples include ACRL, PLA, and LLAMA’s focus on transformational leadership and ALCTS’s focus on transforming collections), round table, and online interest group.

At the heart of this lies a new Transforming Libraries portal. While it’s still very much a work in progress, the digital content and leadership areas are shaping up as significant resources for libraries looking to learn about—and share—innovative and transformative ideas. Come visit, come scoff, but what’s most important, come help build.

Whether you’re an academic librarian, a school librarian, a public librarian, or a special librarian, we need your creativity, your innovative programs and services, and your innovative ideas.

Come join the transformation.

KEITH MICHAEL FIELS is executive director of the American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago.