The Future of Libraries

Innovating, one step at a time

November 11, 2013

Barbara Stripling

Have you noticed a tidal change in public perception about the future of libraries? I certainly have. I rarely hear the gloom-and-doom question from a reporter, “Do libraries have a future in this age of technology?” Now I am asked, “Libraries seem to be changing in interesting ways. What’s happening?”

Libraries of all types are using innovative thinking to change their resources, instruction, programming, and services to meet the emerging needs and priorities of their communities. Innovation is one area I am highlighting during my presidency. What does innovation look like in public, school, academic, and special libraries, and how can we be sure we are doing real library innovation?

ALA will be offering a series of webinars this winter that feature innovative transformational programs being implemented. Libraries have changed their programming and physical presence to enhance the culture of collaboration and learning—creating learning commons and makerspaces; pushing out services to the community through pop-up libraries and mobile beach buggies; establishing virtual learning opportunities; and offering engaging activities like gaming, video production, poetry slams, micropublishing, community forums, TEDx events, and civic discussion.

Librarians are also redefining the concept of “library collection” by balancing print and ebooks; establishing libraries entirely without books; acquiring materials in multiple (and multiplying) formats; providing tools, technology, and software to enable patrons to participate actively in the information world; offering unusual items for checkout, including cookware, fishing poles, comfort dogs, and human “books”; and preserving and curating local cultural artifacts.

Teaching has gained new prominence in the librarian’s role in recognition of the need for every member of society to develop new literacies to make sense of and use information presented through multiple formats. The face of learning has changed, with increased emphasis on connectedness, collaboration, and distributed knowledge. As a result, libraries and librarians are exploring new ways to deliver educational opportunities through mobile technologies, use of social tools, distance education, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

These innovative ideas are attractive and relatively easy to implement but will have limited impact unless we honestly gauge the priorities of our communities and challenge our assumptions about the best ways to meet those priorities. Before implementing any transformative change in our libraries, perhaps we should ask ourselves some provocative questions. The following questions have been adapted from an October 4 Forbes article by Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink, called “10 Disruptive Questions for Instant Innovation”:

  • What do we, as a profession, believe that our patrons want? What if the opposite were true?
  • What core do we need to hold on to even as we transform our libraries to adapt to the changing demands and information landscape?
  • What unique services and opportunities do we offer to our communities?
  • If we could work on only one innovation for the next year, what would it be and why?

As we think about library transformation and innovation, we can take heart that ALA is establishing the Center for the Future of Libraries. Funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in its start-up year, this center will provide resources and tools to help us understand emerging trends. Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Through the center, ALA will be helping us invent the future of libraries.

BARBARA K. STRIPLING is assistant professor of practice at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. Email: bstriping[at]



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