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As the Christmas shopping season officially began over the Thanksgiving holiday, I have been thinking about what the next big thing will be for librarians and libraries in the near future. It’s possibly the right time of year for this type of meditation as business put out their latest and greatest wares for the seasonal marketplace buying frenzy. What is the “must have” item for libraries in this coming year? Is it mobile platforms? Open source programs? Google Wave servers? Lendable e-reader devices? While these certainly have their appeal to the technophile in me, I think the answer is more basic than these contemporary offerings. Like the holidays of this season, I believe that the next big thing in the coming year is a focus on people. Ourselves, our staff, and the communities that we serve: it is a matter of advocacy.
As it has been storied across LISNews, Library Journal, and other news media, this past year of the library has been about the economy. The first half of the year saw stories of how public library usage and statistics were up across the country. As the economy tightened with job and business losses, people sought to curtail spending by eliminating luxury spending and unessential household expenses (such as magazines, newspaper, and internet subscriptions). To fill in these gaps, the library filled the space in their lives. Library staff also helped people process unemployment claims, seek social services and foreclosure assistance, and assist with job hunting.
As the year progressed, states, cities, and municipalities sought to close their deficits by slashing library budgets and other “non essential” services. As previously mentioned in this blog, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan saw funding battles in which libraries were fighting for their very existence. At a time when our social service side was being sorely tested, our survival was dependent on how quickly we could articulate our value to the community and rally them to our cause. In some cases, the established credentials of the library restored most of lost funding; in other cases, it simply did not materialize.
This was not limited to the public sector; state funding and endowment of community and state colleges and universities shrank as well, putting academic libraries under sharpened budget scrutiny. (Louisiana Tech & Grambling State; University of North Carolina; University of Arizona & Northern Arizona University; and Virginia Tech, to name a few.) Anecdotally, from my few acquaintances in special libraries, I’ve heard tales of cutbacks directed towards the corporate library in the form of materials and staff. In looking ahead to the next year, where the budget battles are shaping up to be tougher, the tough lesson learned from these course of events is this: in this new information culture, the library must be able to consistently demonstrate our superior value as a community intellectual and recreation resource.
With that said, there are advocacy efforts currently underway. Sites like Save Ohio Libraries, I Love NJ Libraries, and ALA’s I Love Libraries are but a few online efforts to educate, recruit, and energize the public about the importance of the public library in society. I’m trying to refrain from sounding like gloom and doom in terms of the possible consequences of inaction or insufficient action. However, I do believe that if we do not act in a timely and effective manner, we will be burdened with even more catching up (modernizing through technology plus regaining the trust and support of the general public). Now is the time for concerted action.
In looking ahead to next year, the other thing I would like to see is for us (the library community) to do is to reach out and start forging better relationships with others in the “getting people to information” business. I’m thinking of our database and journal subscription providers, but also search engine companies (in particular, Microsoft and Google). What I would like to see is a lowering of these barriers between us and these groups.
We have these wonderful collections locked up in catalog software, invisible to the search engine eye. Wouldn’t it be great if our catalog listing for a book, magazine, movie, or audio book to come up as a first result for a Google or Bing search, above other results? Or it gave you a World Cat style listing of the 5 closest libraries that have it? With a more universal library catalog interface, can we make it so that an ILL request is a simple click away? I think we can.
If I’m in a database such as EBSCO, and one of my results is a citation for a journal article, wouldn’t it be cool if it told me where the nearest library holding was? Make a button so that I can do a photocopy request within the interface if the holding is too far away. (You already have my card number since I needed that to get into the database in the first place.) I don’t think we lack the technology to make this happen either.
This is where our customers are looking for information first; this is where we should be looking to be. And why not? We are all in the “getting people to information” business; we just happen to be the non-profit end. This is a win-win for both sides where we get our catalogs and holdings onto higher profile platforms while they get to offer better varied results to their users. Our library automation vendors certainly aren’t offering us new ways to be able to market our holdings or be able to glance around our area to see what other libraries might have an item. Hell, the idea of adding text message hold and overdue notifications seems like onerous task to them despite the explosion of text messaging as a communication medium.
The truth is that libraries are uniquely positioned as the most universal and diverse “middle man” in the information matrix; we are the best human resource for people to have for all of their questions and intellectual and entertainment needs. We are where the big corporations and our vendors are not: in a position to evaluate information interface effectiveness at the human level on a scale far larger than their focus groups and in real life settings. This is what we bring to the information table and this is why it is important to look to share it with the others. There is nothing to lose, only tools and resources to gain.
Those who hang onto their data fiefdoms do not progress in this information age. They are anchors, relics of an old age where thoughts and ideas must be chaperoned rather than be freed. Only be removing any shackles or obstacles between people and what they seek can we move forward in our mission to provide universal information access. It is where we need to be heading in the new year: proving again our value to the general public while eliminating the virtual distances that keep us separated from the others who work with information. Both of these connections exist; let us strengthen them and forge ahead.