Public libraries are trusted community and cultural centers that serve a highly diverse group of patrons: business professionals, job seekers, parents, young children, students, entrepreneurs, community organizations, ESL learners, and many others. Out of all the audiences public libraries serve, which ones have been most impacted by technology changes? Which ones will drive library programs in the future? Leif Pedersen, Executive Vice President of Product and Marketing at Innovative, published an article in Public Library Quarterly titled “The Future of Public Libraries: A Technology Perspective,” which highlights three public library audiences impacted by technology changes: youth, job seekers and entrepreneurs, and lifelong learning adults.
Below is an Accepted Manuscript of the article published by Taylor & Francis in Public Library Quarterly, Volume 35, 2016 – Issue 4, and online December 12 at http://tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01616846.2016.1245013
In the most traditional sense, libraries have always been responsible for preserving information and providing access to resources in order to strengthen patron knowledge and imagination. The library was a physical building, filled with books, that the community would visit. Then the rise of the Internet put access at our fingertips; information became ubiquitous. Navigating the endless sea of information required strong critical thinking skills to discern quality search results, but the public library was ready to meet the challenge. Librarians were already practiced at evaluating the weight and accuracy of information from a variety of sources, taking responsibility to provide access to quality information and worldly interactions. And so, the library remained front and center. Connecting patrons to new sources of information, in new formats, with new devices to support information literacy in an ever-expanding pool of content. While the Internet was a compelling event for library transformation, they remain in a state of ongoing evolution. As technology advances and patron demands continue to change, the expectation of what a library should be and offer changes with them.
Today, public libraries are even more valuable–indispensable to the communities they serve. As we look to the future, the services public libraries provide will continue to grow and expand. Already, many libraries offer radically re-imagined programs to support how technology has impacted three core populations: youth, job seekers and entrepreneurs, and lifelong learning adults.
With the rise in tablets, mobile phones, and more easily accessible Internet connections, children are learning baseline technology skills at an astonishing rate. Public libraries play a critical role in literacy development, and we anticipate more programs geared towards young children to foster creativity and imagination beyond just traditional books. Both for those who have access to advanced technology in their homes, as well as those who do not and must rely heavily on the library to provide the same tech-based resources.
These programs will challenge how children and young adults learn and explore new ways of engagement. Public libraries will continue to push the limit on how they serve their communities, while maintaining their responsibility to provide a safe haven for youth and young adults. By developing social skills with community events and broadening their horizons with makerspaces and new workshop activities, patrons will learn, grow and connect with others in completely new ways in the future.
Our society is at the height of innovation, and we believe public libraries will play a unique role in lowering the unemployment rate, as well as increasing opportunities for emerging service offerings and alternative business models in their communities. We’re seeing an increase in entrepreneurs, students who will soon be entering the job market for the first time, as well as those seeking new careers that better align with their passions. Library programs, resources, physical spaces, and community partnerships translate directly into support for these groups, often drawing new users to the public library.
This results in a need for greater emphasis on programs geared toward career development. For example, libraries offer resume building workshops, opportunities to conduct a practice interview, or simply access to the Internet to search and apply for jobs—an overlooked luxury for many people today. And as we look at how libraries will better utilize their physical space, we expect quiet rooms within public libraries will receive more usage. From small business entrepreneurs renting out community rooms, to local organizations holding meetings with people in the community. Even town hall and board meetings will be held from within the library. We see many public libraries making this shift already, and we anticipate it will continue, with libraries serving as an incubator for leading-edge career development and transitions for their communities.
Finally, we envision libraries will continue offering lifelong learning opportunities for all ages, with learning encompassing a very broad swath of experiences. Public libraries are passionate about serving all members of the community—of all ages. As our population ages, there is a dire need to provide quality service for older adults. Using community rooms for informational meetings, such as long-term care planning and personal protection is important. Other programs we expect will gain popularity in the future include adult programs on assistive technology to educate aging individuals on new technologies to improve their functional capabilities. Not far off from these technology-focused programs will be greater civic engagement, to identify issues of public concern to instill a feeling of belonging and ownership in the communities in which patrons belong. As more opportunities for education emerge, older adults will continue to use public libraries for recreation, such as participating in book clubs, gardening or photography classes, and trips to new places in the community.
As new resources and programs are introduced to more adequately meet patron needs, library professionals must find additional ways to serve their communities—away from the traditional library walls. We foresee mobility as a key theme in the future of public libraries, where the expectation of library space takes on a whole new meaning. Mobile technology has enabled libraries to think “outside the walls” and there will be even greater interaction with patrons where there wasn’t before. From attending community events via modern bookmobile-type vehicles, to partnering with local schools that don’t have the funds for a library on school grounds or transportation to get to the public library, library staff must be able to meet patrons where it matters most.
As our society’s reliance on mobile devices continues to grow, there will be even more opportunities for public libraries to evolve. Patrons no longer discover and check out resources solely from within the library, but rather from wherever it is most convenient for them. Public libraries are already adapting to how patrons discover library collections, services, and information by incorporating mobile access and outreach into their strategic plans. Libraries must continue down this path, with mobile applications that both streamline internal workflows to increase staff efficiencies, and patron-facing applications that provide a new entry point to engage with the library. Beyond making traditional data formats available on new devices, libraries are focused on new structures, leveraging Linked Data to increase library visibility and become an active contributor of knowledge in the Semantic Web.
The increased reliance on public libraries will also have a significant impact on library automation vendors, like Innovative. For public libraries to truly thrive in the future, we must be willing to integrate our solutions with other vendors within our industry, as well as with external innovators in technology. And just as we must be open to one another, public libraries must be open to remain sustainable. Open to greater vendor partnerships to increase the library’s functionality and enable a more positive patron experience. Open to new technologies, to provide new paths to library resources and support new service models, as well as to promote the library and all that it continues to offer.
Library professionals do amazing work, and as we look to the future, the innovative programs that bring them great success must be broadcast on a grand scale. Stronger community engagement and library collaboration will continue to drive the success of public libraries, with greater access to information, resources, services, and support.
It is an honor working with public libraries every day, and we look forward to the impact they will have in the years to come.