Blazing Trails, pt. 6: What’s on the horizon

September 6, 2010 at 10:39 pm 2 comments

This post is part 6 of the Blazing Trails series. Earlier parts are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

So, what can we do? How are we going to keep libraries vital and viable in the years to come? I’ll tell you right off the bat that I don’t think there’s a “magic bullet” that’s going to save us. I think we’ll have to approach library relevance from a number of different points, and on an ongoing basis.

I’m old enough to remember very well the days before cell phones. I always managed just fine. But when I got a cell phone I was amazed at how quickly it became part of my day-to-day life. Later I got an iPhone, and now I wonder how I ever got by without it! It’s so convenient and combines so many functions into one device. I rely on it heavily. I think the best chance for libraries to maintain long-term viability is to become so entwined in the lives of our community, so useful, so fun, that they can’t imagine getting by without us. And I think the best way to do that is a multi-pronged approach. I love my iPhone because it’s more than just a phone. It lets me do so many things without being tethered to a computer. I use it for work, for entertainment, to keep in touch with family and friends. And that’s what libraries need to focus on. Rather than counting on people who use us for one purpose only, we need to make “true fans” who love everything we do.

I’m not saying we need to start from scratch. Do you have popular kids programs? Great! Keep doing them. Are they as good as they could be? Maybe not. And that’s an area of opportunity. In fact, I think children’s services have some of the most exciting potential for the future of libraries. This has long been an area of strength for us, and I think it’s a great place to experiment and play with new ideas.

The July 10th issue of Newsweek contained a fascinating article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman called “The Creativity Crisis.” They explore the declining creativity scores of American children and show how our schools are, for the most part, contributing to the decline. What a perfect place for libraries to step in! I think we are uniquely positioned to help foster creativity – we are great at disseminating knowledge, but by virtue of our collections and knowledgeable staff, we are also great at creating serendipity. Helping children find what they don’t even know they’re looking for and then take seemingly disparate ideas and synthesize them to create something new…that should be right in our wheelhouse. How can we foster this?

Around the same time, The New Yorker published “State of Play” by Rebecca Mead. She takes a look at the history of playgrounds and children’s play spaces:

Over the past century, the thinking about playgrounds has evolved from figuring out how play can instill youngsters with discipline to figuring out how play can build brains by fostering creativity and independent thinking.

Mead mentions a new type of playground that uses “loose parts” – large, lightweight foam blocks and noodles in a variety of shapes and sizes that kids can move around and re-configure at will. I’m not saying we should turn our libraries into playgrounds, but I love the idea of flexible spaces and flexible furniture – easily moveable building blocks that let people design their own library space, so to speak. Why try to guess what people are going to want? Why not just give them the opportunity to set things up for themselves?

That doesn’t apply just to children, and it doesn’t have to involve remodeling your whole building. We have one of these multi-purpose tables in our teen center. It can be used as a side table next to a comfortable chair, or can be turned another way and become a laptop table. It’s lightweight and has a handle so it can be easily moved. I want to buy a bunch of these for our library and just scatter them around. Put some near the entrance and the top of the stairs so people can grab one on their way in. Let people sit where they want and not be stuck in a specific area of the library because they need a desk for their laptop. If we take time and look around, there are tons of opportunities right in front of us. We’re also looking into providing charging stations because we’ve noticed cords stretched across aisles and walkways while people try to charge their phones while studying or working on our computers.

Incidentally, if change scares you, this is a great way to dip your toes in the water. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool (yet) – just find a few problems and solve them. Watch your customers using your library and see if you can think of ways to make their experience easier or better. Customers’ behavior will almost always tell you more than their words, which is how OXO ended up making an angled measuring cup – a solution to a problem people didn’t even know they had.

Solving customer problems is definitely one of the ways to make true fans, but it’s only a start. We have to be able to grab that low-hanging fruit and then use those changes to transition into a broader, bolder long-term strategy, and to do that we’re going to have to free up some resources. This is where it starts to feel like blazing new trails might lead us right off a cliff!

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"To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong." - Pearce

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