Trends Shaping Today’s Libraries (Part 1)

 In Resources

Whether you are conducting strategic planning, embarking on a capital campaign, or on the hunt for a new library executive with credentials perfectly suited to the role, it is imperative to remember that these activities do not take place “in a vacuum.” On the contrary, success in any of the above requires a firm understanding of the larger, ever-changing library environment.

Let’s take a brief look at five major dovetailing trends that are shaping the future of libraries.


1) “Collective Impact” Initiatives

Progressive, proactive libraries do everything in their power to match the resources they offer to the most pressing needs in their community. Literacy and education are only just a start. Health and wellness, poverty and hunger, and even environmental issues are on the radar today to a new and elevated degree.

Naturally, this is a tall order. No library’s budget allows it to give each of these areas its due – unless strategic partnerships are in play, that is. “Collective impact” is the idea that a library can extend its reach greatly by cooperating with other, allied community organizations.

While partnership is hardly a new concept, “collective impact” initiatives put libraries in the driver’s seat. As “backbone organizations” (to use the parlance of Stanford University, who first coined the term), libraries increasingly oversee these joint efforts, broker communication, and measure the results.

Several examples are particularly illustrative. In Pennsylvania, the Free Library of Philadelphia orchestrated “Paschalville Partnership,” a synergistic partnership between ten area organizations with a vested interest in addressing the underserved Paschalville neighborhood’s consistently high unemployment rate.

In Arizona, the Pima County Public Library is collaborating with local government and medical partners to station “roving nurses” in Tucson area libraries. They provide nutrition and wellness advice, as well as much-needed assessments, screenings – and referrals as needed.


2) Makerspaces

‘Makerspace’ is the buzziest buzzword to hit the library world in a long time. Even so, many people remain a little fuzzy on just what makerspaces are – and what they are good for.

In part, this confusion can be attributed to the very newness of the concept. The New Media Consortium’s annual “Library Horizons Report” did not mention makerspaces even once in 2014. However, by the time of the next year’s report, makerspaces were already on track for “widespread adoption!”

Makerspaces are rooted in makerism, a grassroots movement that values creation and craftsmanship over consumption.

At their heart, makerspaces are physical spaces specially zoned for self-directed learning and experimentation. Adults congregate in makerspaces to workshop ideas and make use of tools (ex.: 3D printers, electronic equipment) they otherwise would not have easy, free access to. More popular still are DIY spaces geared towards children and teens.

While makerspaces can be found in a number of environments, including schools and community centers, libraries are their logical home. Any library looking at a new build or renovation will likely want to consider including at least one such space in their design.

For larger libraries, Boston Public Library’s Media Lounge & Lab and the Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library’s new Best Buy Teen Tech Center offer something of a gold standard. For smaller communities, the Fayetteville (New York) Free Library Creation Lab offers up an excellent case study.


3) Expanded Lending Opportunities

Librarians today contend with the outmoded (yet resilient) perception that libraries loan books – and little else. While lending collections remain critical to any library’s core mission, this is a gross oversimplification.

Reports generated by PEW Research and OCLC show that, across the country, e-books, music, movies, and other multimedia resources represent a sizable portion of library circulation. (We know of one case – a small, rural library in southern Minnesota – where DVDs alone accounted for nearly 50 percent of all loans over the past year.)

Forward-thinking libraries invest beyond e-books and software – to the e-readers it takes to read them, and to the computing devices needed to use those programs at home. Brooklyn Public Library made waves in 2013 when it piloted a tablet lending program, yet today such programs are almost commonplace in libraries of that size.

Other lending opportunities show off a degree of creativity on the part of the library. Pima County Public Library in Arizona and Duluth Public Library in Minnesota made headlines in 2014 for rolling out popular heirloom vegetable “seed libraries.”

The Ann Arbor (Michigan) Library is another trailblazer to watch. Among other innovative offerings, the system loans energy meters, allowing patrons to test the energy efficiency of their home appliances. Ann Arbor residents can also refresh their home décor by borrowing from a wide collection of original and reproduction artwork maintained by the library.

Taken on its own, any one of these case studies could be written off as an anomaly. Taken together, they point the way towards the new normal.


4) Lifelong Learning

No successful library simply stocks in-demand materials and calls it a day. Now more than ever, the public library is an active part of a community’s education ecosystem.

According to PEW Research, a full 73 percent of adults self-identify with a liberal definition of “lifelong learner.” Library patrons crave free and inexpensive learning opportunities – for both professional development and personal enrichment.

Our favorite public institution caters to these needs. As of April 2016, 62 percent of public libraries offer career and job-related resources of some kind. Approximately 35 percent offer GED or high school equivalency classes. In addition, according to IPAC, 33 percent offer programs centered around starting up a new business.

Critically, however, not everyone who could benefit from such programs appreciates that their library is a nexus for lifelong learning. When surveyed, only 38 percent of patrons associated their library with career offerings, like job fairs and resume writing classes. Only 26 percent said their library offers GED and remedial learning classes. A mere 24 percent knew of business start-up classes.

What to make of that disconnect? As libraries continue to invest in classes and services, they should also make concerted efforts to promote those offerings effectively.

One model for success is the Howard County Library in Maryland. “A+ Partners in Education,” that system’s all-ages education initiative, won them Library Journal’s prestigious “Library of the Year” laurel in 2013.


5) Agents for Collaboration

Several years ago, the rapid rise of e-reading technologies provoked fears that visits to brick-and-mortar libraries would drop precipitously. One major reason this did not pan out is that patrons value libraries for more than their collections – for more than the services and programs they offer, too.

Oftentimes, users come to the library simply to be with one another. The age-old caricature of a “shushing” librarian in a cemetery-quiet library is so very far from the truth. Today, the public library is one of a community’s best venues for socialization and agents for collaboration.

Makerspaces are a prime example, but merely the tip of the iceberg.

Increasingly, we see this reflected in facility planning. When designing a new space or renovating an old one, designers incorporate at least some furniture that is moveable, reconfigurable, and comfortable. This is a deliberate move to encourage quiet conversation and welcome cooperative efforts of all kinds.

In this same vein, library facilities being built today are defined as much by large and small meeting rooms, study suites, and energetic teen zones as by open stacks, information desks, and other more “traditional” library features.

Salt Lake City Public Library offers a strong case study. Its branches are equipped with many such spaces, and staff actively market them to hundreds of community organizations of all shapes and sizes. (Frequent users range from the League of Women Voters, to “Utah Quilters,” to the local chapter of the Lymphoma Society.)

Read our Part 2 of our Library Trends Series!

Have you seen other Library Trends we should know about? If so, give us a shout!

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