What if aliens took over your library, or every book on Earth disappeared?
These hypothetical questions may seem more sci-fi than reality, but they’re the kind of futuristic scenarios that Dawn La Valle says libraries should think about and prepare for.
“The decisions we make today inform our future tomorrow,” said La Valle, director of the division of library development for Connecticut State Library (CSL) and a Certified Natural Foresight Practitioner, a training program offered by The Futures School. “How we think about the future directly impacts the decisions we can make today.”
La Valle hosted the session “Which World? Using Far Fetched Scenarios to Map out the Future of Libraries” at American Library Association’s 2023 LibLearnX conference in New Orleans on January 29. She spoke about futures thinking, a creative process of imagining what the world could look like decades from now and how that should affect present-day planning. It’s a discipline that is used by corporations, governments, and the tech industry, she said—and now, in libraries, too.
“It really is about rethinking thinking,” learning to process information without assumptions and biases, she said. The way most institutions, including libraries, weren’t prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies the importance of thinking outside the norm, La Valle noted.
The audience heard and discussed three different future scenarios from La Valle. The first was a world in which Google and Amazon—after laying off hundreds of employees after massive hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic—merged to create “Googlezon,” taking over libraries and controlling the release of information. In the second scenario, aliens invaded Earth and took over every library, removing all information on the human race and its literature. In the last scenario, a world suddenly devoid of all books.
In all of the imagined scenarios La Valle laid out, libraries and library workers thrived because they built underground institutions or had other plans in place to help rebuild a democratic society. Though the imagined situations start as far-fetched, La Valle said, the effects on—and efforts from—libraries may feel more plausible, especially nowadays with the recent waves of book challenges and bans.
“When you literally have to cover your library in your classroom, and you have to cover your books to keep them out of sight from your students—this is happening,” La Valle said.
For those who want to pursue mapping out their libraries’ future, La Valle advised they think about how they want to enhance the viability of their library, and write stories of future scenarios about how their libraries can thrive in the face of social, technological, economic, or political drivers. The stories should include best- and worst-case scenarios and serve as a guide to how libraries can make decisions and take actions, she explained.
At CSL, La Valle said this approach is part of her team’s everyday operating system and impacts their approach to programs, resources, and partnerships. She acknowledges that getting libraries on board with changing their strategic planning and operating systems to incorporate something new, including futures thinking, is a challenge—but a necessary one.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, the way we did things for our organizations, it failed miserably… linear planning does not work.”