Magazine article American Libraries

Fit Libraries Are Future-Proof: It's Survival of the Fittest in Libraryland These Days. How Does Your Library Shape Up?

Magazine article American Libraries

Fit Libraries Are Future-Proof: It's Survival of the Fittest in Libraryland These Days. How Does Your Library Shape Up?

Article excerpt

The year 2009 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous book, The Origin of Species. Darwin's work is memorable for its theories about the survival of the fittest, and by fittest he meant those species best able to adapt to change, not necessarily the biggest or strongest.

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The year 2009 was also marked by turmoil and great upheaval in multiple industries, most famously in banking and automobiles. It was a year when many once thought to be among the biggest and. the strongest failed to survive or were greatly weakened. Even though libraries have survived for thousands of years in one form or another, the past year has demonstrated that none of us should take the future for granted.

I've come to think that, managing our uncertain future is about achieving fitness: adapting to change, staying relevant. Personally, we know the importance of individual fitness for staying healthy and preventing the onset of disease. Fitness is the state of persisting; the absence of fitness invites decline and decay. Maintaining fitness, we can avoid serious health problems and increase our lifespan. Fit libraries increase their longevity while avoiding the failures that lead to irrelevancy.

While we may know well what personal fitness means, the concept of a fit library is ambiguous. is it simply a matter of paying attention to the numbers, not unlike observing metrics such as the Body Mass Index? Does an increase in circulation or the delivery of more instruction sessions point to a fit library? Achieving library fitness is a combination of strategies that, like personal fitness, involve consistent behaviors, discipline, commitment to change, and having fun while shaping up. What follows are a dozen actions librarians can take that can lead to fitter, future-proofed libraries.

Twelve steps to library fitness

Listen/observe: Library users are always sending us ideas through their demonstrated uses of our resources and services, as well as their casual observations and outright complaints. For example, a user stops by the reference desk and asks the librarian why it's not possible to text some catalog information to his or her smartphone. That's an opportunity to create positive change. But if we fail to have our antennae up so we can pick up these signals or if we assume we know more about a great library experience than the users do, some great possibilities will be missed.

Ask the water-line question: Even the best fitness routines require occasional change and some innovation. But innovation often involves risk taking. Excessive risk taking can be dangerous to your personal fitness but catastrophic for organizational fitness. One way to think about mitigating risk is to ask the water-line question. Think of a ship on the open water. The captain wants to take a risk, but is it an above- or below-the-water-line risk? If the risk blows a hole above the water line, the ship can make the repair, survive, and continue. But if it's below the water line, well, it may be the end of the ship. Whether it involves money, personnel, or other resources, think about where a failure may hit your organization--above or below the water line.

Go local: Libraries of all types are in tune with their local community. Academic librarians and school media specialists know their faculty and students and the work they do. Public librarians know what's happening in their communities. Rather than worrying quite so much about competing with search engines and whatever technologies follow them, we maybe better off concentrating our energies on knowing and serving our local communities. By focusing on them we can meet their needs far more powerfully than with services that try to be everything to everyone.

Engage the user: It's important to understand our users, be aware of their expectations, and keep their needs in mind when designing services. …

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