The Future of Libraries in a Digital Culture

Library Administrator's Digest, November 2012 | Go to article overview

The Future of Libraries in a Digital Culture


During my morning run, I cut through the public library's parking lot. My books are overdue, I remind myself. Like many Americans in the downturn, I've increased my use of the local public library. In 2011, OCLC- a library consortium - reported that library usage increased for 36 million Americans. All told, 69 percent of Americans currently use public libraries. My library is a remarkable value - a banquet of books and periodicals, earnest service and free Wi-Fi. Lately, libraries are playing an unheralded role in the economic recovery by helping people find work and build businesses.

As the jobless rate hovers around 8 percent, some libraries are stepping up with resume-writing classes and online job-search tutorials. According to research published by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and quoted by Karen Perry, senior program officer for the U.S. Libraries at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 30 million Americans rely on libraries to find a job. For hopeful entrepreneurs, libraries help with free access to otherwise costly business databases like LexisNexis. Some libraries are even helping patrons better understand how to manage their money with unbiased financial information.

Until recently, public libraries had little reason to innovate. Then Google arrived. More disruptive technologies followed, causing an identity crisis for librarians. Now the profession is re-thinking its purpose - a quest that lured a gathering of 350 eager librarians to Telluride, Colorado recently for the R-Squared (Risk and Reward) Conference.

As I circulated, knots of librarians huddled to share ideas and solutions. If there was a common thread it was the need to understand the increasingly complex lives of customers. Pre-lnternet, a library could be object oriented - all about books. But the confluence of digitization and a prolonged recession has triggered an evolution that puts a focus on people, not things. …

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