Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Future of Public Libraries

This is a long post ... it's been building ...

I was asked to deliver a talk on the future of libraries recently. Some of you know that a lot of my job is in the administration of technology ... Web development, Internet access, technology training, ... you know the list. So when asked to talk about the future, I think my audience expected me to talk about how technology would impact libraries ... instead, I told a story ...

Joanna was in the doctor’s office with her husband Dan. They sat there is sort of stunned silence. After 35 years, they’d been through a few scrapes here and there, but this was the first time they’d faced anything like this ... The doctor had just told them that Dan was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Joanna spoke first, asking the doctor if he had any information they could take home to help them understand a bit more about the disease. He handed her a few pamphlets, then told them that their local public library might be the best place to get some more info, as much of it is aimed at consumers, not medical practitioners.

The next day, Joanna visited the library. While she often borrowed books and CDs, she was outside her element when it came to locating medical information. So, she found a librarian at the service desk and asked where she might find something about Alzheimer’s disease. The librarian steered her toward some books, articles, and videos available in the collection, and left her to consider her choices.

When she got home, she shared her findings with her husband. It seemed to cheer him up a bit. While it couldn’t change the diagnosis, it helped him better understand what was and would be happening to him. But it didn’t help Joanna ... she needed something more ... something different ...

After a few days, she went back to the library. She found the librarian again, and this time told her that she needed some information about how to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. The librarian asked her if the woman was comfortable with Web resources. When she indicated that she’d try anything, the librarian steered Joanna to MyHealth, a site the library built in partnership with the public health department, several local hospitals, the National Library of Medicine, and a local pharmaceutical company. Included among the resources in MyHealth was additional locally relevant information for her husband, but it also had some of the things she needed ... how to deal with your loved one’s emotions, ways to care for him, where to get local assistance, how to get financial help, and how she might find help and support for herself.

The librarian stayed with her until she had guided the woman through the avenues of the site. Among the items that interested her most were the listings of area support groups and an online bulletin board. The librarian told her she could post questions, concerns, greetings, ... anything to the bulletin board, and it could be completely anonymous.

An hour later, when she had reviewed some of the postings, she entered her own message ...

“Hi, I’m new to this ... I don’t know too much about this bulletin board, or about Alzheimer’s. My husband’s been diagnosed ... and I’m hoping someone might be able to help us ... help me ... Thanks in advance.”

When Joanna returned the library a few days later to attend a support group meeting, she arrived a little early. She decided to check the bulleting board to see if anyone had read her message. When she logged in, she saw that 23 people had left her messages. Messages like “Welcome to the group,” “Glad you stopped by,” and “I hope we can help ... we’ve all been there, and we’re here for you.” As she stepped into the support group meeting, she felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her. She felt like there were people out there – not too far away -- who would help her and Dan get through what faced them both.

So this is the future ... the future of libraries ...

It’s about four things ... answering questions ... inspiring new questions to be asked ... interacting to build understanding ... and engaging to change peoples’ lives and their communities.

The first two, we’ve been doing pretty regularly for years – answering reference and readers’ advisory questions like “Where can I find information on Alzheimer’s?” and “I’d like to read a book sort of like The Moviegoer by Walker Percy ... do you have anything?” We put on programs for kids and adults that gave them new concepts and ideas and spurred them to seek additional information that wouldn’t even have appeared on their radar screen before the program. Pretty standard library stuff ...

But the new meat ... the stuff we need to prepare for as part of the not-so-far-off future is in the last two pieces ... interaction and engagement. Interaction to build understanding is really all about linking up people to information and to other people who can provide them with ideas and experiences that broaden their views of the world. It’s done through book clubs and study cells and support groups and online chat and bulleting boards. We’re using new technology and good ole fashion face-to-face communication to extend the reach of the traditional library. It’s not just about hooking folks up with the printed page anymore ... there is too much value out there in experiences and emotions and conversations that just can’t be transmitted through the old paradigm of library work. Interaction creates the connection that will drive the next generations, and libraries need to be a part of that.

The last chunk ... engagement that changes lives and builds community ... to me, this is the holy grail. It’s the stuff that allows us to move past learning, past understanding and into real action. On this plane, the library takes a central role a facilitator for community change and public good. It will occur on a personal level as well as across neighborhoods, cities, and counties. The library will not simply be the building, the collection, the technology, and the staff working to achieve something good and valuable for the community ... Instead, it will be all of those things plus community volunteers, civic leaders, educators, healthcare providers, business leaders, and of course library patrons. It will be all of these folks together working through the one perfect partner for community well-being, the public library.

A year after Dan’s diagnosis, Joanna was preparing to go to her support group meeting. She logged into the bulleting board and saw an entry from a new name. It was a man whose wife had just found out she had Alzheimer’s. She smiled knowingly as she read, “Hi ... I’m new to this and don’t know what to ask or say. I just wanted to say hello, and ask if there was anyone out there who could help me get acclimated to all of the fears we’re probably going to be going through. Thanks in advance.”

As Joanna began typing off a quick response, she thought of how far she had come ... A year before she had struggled to find out where to go for help, and now she actually ran her own support group and was chairing a citizen committee that lobbied for low-cost care for Alzheimer’s patients. She changed her life and increased the possibility of a better life for her husband, She touched tens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of lives across the community. Through questions and answers, inspiration of new questions, interaction with others, and engagement, Joanna used the library to change the community for good. This is the future of libraries. This is what I see.


Blogger The Blue Pamphlet said...

And the unfortunate thing is a lot of these tools have been out there for years. With online message boards, not only can I post questions about cars, but have spare parts sent to me by people I meet for the cost of shipping. Can't do something in an Office program, don't just say I don't know, hop on the web, do some searching, visit pages with the same problems. Meeting friends online, using VoIP 5 years before it was mainstream and eventually meeting your wife online.

All good tools, make the text on the screen more personable, not just some hunk o' text that can be searched.

11:10 PM  
Blogger ic-tim said...

Absolutely! Your the exception that proves the new rule!

2:05 AM  
Blogger bck said...

This is a great post, Tim! It's a powerful story - and it's happening all the time at libraries all over the place.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Ivan Chew said...

Hi Tim, thanks for this. Now when people ask me "What's Library 2.0", I'll just point them to your post.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

Future Generations will not need a LIbrarian to show them how to look stuff up and post to blogs. The Public Library will be Obsolere within 25 years. The digital age will prove to be the end of wasting green space by putting up a huge building that has nothing to offer to better what we will have in the palm of our hand in the form of a powerful mini computer that will direct information and even holographic images. Individuals will own holographic volumes of any book they want.

4:42 PM  

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