Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Evolutions of Libraries

The library has historically been the repository of knowledge, a place where you go when you WANT to learn something, a place with answers and resources. that is still true today, but today's libraries are in the crosshairs of change due to technology. Many have seen the trends and have made adaptations and additions, but is that enough?

I have known this for a while, in the back of my mind. As I look at the libraries in my district, I see many great moves that meet the needs of today's students and society. I have seen many changes at the local public library also. But are adaptations and additions enough?

This recently hit home to me when I took two of my sons to the public library. My kids were stoked, so excited all day, and bragging to their friends when I picked them up. My second grader even wanted to do his homework there. Did you hear that? WANTED! We arrived and while the second grader did his work, my 3 year old and I explored the board books and other activities they had for children. We had a blast and couldn't borrow enough books to read that night. Then my second grader finished and it was his turn to look around. He found many books to borrow that were of interest to him. But...

Then it hit. He wanted to find out about griffins. We searched on their catalogue, and found no resources. The excellent librarian was next. He asked her and she couldn't find anything specific except the subject of mythology, so we went over to the books and looked at the mythology books, checking indexes of those books for annotations of griffins. Great library and life skills and resources for a second grader to learn! After a couple minutes of that he found a book with a page about griffins. A win! He grabbed it quickly and off we went.

While this process played out over 10-15 minutes though, I was thinking that we could just go over to the computer search station and check out the databases. Or... I could just pull out my smartphone and search it right there and immediate resources pull up. That is the society expectation of knowledge, not the process of exploration but immediate finding and move on to doing something with the knowledge or on to the next topic. Not the ceremony appropriated to knowledge achievements.

Libraries are the halls of self-intended knowledge, and churches to those seeking public resources of knowledge. But as non-fiction books are printed, they are almost automatically non-comprehensive and nearing obsoletion, through no fault of their own. Society just has different needs and expectations.

So what will or should libraries be? If someone were to think up the concept of libraries right now, start from scratch, what would they look like?

At a recent technology meeting, a neighboring district explained how they are reshaping their library experience. Like all great changes in history, it is accompanied with a name change. Library? Nah... Learning Commons! Not a passive repository, but a place of action where folks come to, as the name Commons implies. Technology resources abound, but not necessarily supplied by the district. While there are district resources for technology use available, some were removed to make room for more flexible space accommodations. Comfy chairs, additional power outlets, movable furniture for group work; elements of paradigm change for new experiences and organizations.

So how should libraries look? What is the focus of their services both now and for the generation to come? What then is the role of the librarian?