The Future of the Library, yet again

One of my personal gurus, US teacher librarian (Library Media Specialist) Dr Joyce Valenza has written an important post about the future of libraries.

Seth Godin, a marketing wunderkind has turned his attention to libraries. And he doesn’t like what he sees. Dr Valenza explains:

Seth Godin and Mike Eisenberg and me on the Future of the Library

January 9, 2010
I am a huge fan of Seth Godin.

Seth . . .

  • writes the most popular marketing blog in the world;
  • is the author of the bestselling marketing books of the last decade;
  • speaks to large groups on marketing, new media and what’s next;
  • and is the founder of, a fast-growing recommendation website.

Seth’s brief blog post this morning on the Future of the Library certainly got my attention:

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.

Once again, the net turns things upside down. The information is free now. No need to pool tax money to buy reference books. What we need to spend the money on are leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Clearly we haven’t marketed our own message effectively.  Today’s leading expert on marketing, and many others, need to know that job one, for most of us (I HOPE), IS being:

leaders, sherpas and teachers who will push everyone from kids to seniors to get very aggressive in finding and using information and in connecting with and leading others.

Is Seth saying that we need librarians, but not traditional libraries?

(Make sure you click on the survive link above to see that Seth read Robin’s brilliant post in her CCHS Learning Commons about steps necessary for school library survival.)

We need to make sure that folks who matter get the memo that we are not about circulation alone and that circulation itself is happening online.  (And that some of those reference books and ebooks are available–nearly invisibly–through library-funded databases.)

And that they get the memo that describes the many ways librarians address literacy and equity each and every day.

That they get the memo that physical libraries are evolving to become learning commons or libratories.  (See Library as domestic metaphor and My 2.0 Day.)

That we find multiple ways to show what the school library of today looks like in action.  (See 14 Ways K12 Librarians Can Teach Social Media.)

We haven’t done our job to market ourselves and our programs.  People don’t know what they look like because we haven’t shared loudly enough.

It may also be that some libraries aren’t yet there.

In case you were sleeping, over the past two years, stuff happened.  Big stuff.  Stuff we should have led. I’ve been watching as other professionals in education grabbed turf we should have grabbed or tred together.

It reached the surface this spring with the Twitter discussion on librarians as social media specialists.

The game has changed dramatically.  The changes we talk about are not bandwagons. They represent profound changes in the way we do business, the way we do libraries, the way we must educate.

Teacher librarians, as information and communication specialists must lead change in their buildings and districts or face irrelevancy.

Something Darwinian is underway.  Adaptation is essential.  And if we are to thrive, leadership is essential.

School library practice must adapt to complete shifts in the information and communication landscapes.  Folks who believe that Web 2.0, or whatever we next call the read/write Web, will go away are hopelessly mistaken.

Mike Eisenberg allowed me to share excerpts from a discussion we engaged in this week with Lisa Layera Brunkan. Mike wrote:

It keeps me up at night too – but to me it’s not will the librarians be in a position to be a logical choice, but rather will librarians grab the opportunity. Any librarian employed today IS in the position! They need to embrace a role that focuses on meeting people’s information needs through any and all media, systems, formats, and approaches.

Joyce helped me to see that information literacy is both using and producing information. Librarians – particularly those in schools – should be at the center of this: to ensure that students are information literate – to ensure that students are effective users and producers of information.

What we need are opportunistic librarians – using every interaction with kids, fellow teachers, parents, administrators and the public to PROVE that they are right at the center of the action – of making sure that every student is super-skilled in information seeking, use, production, and evaluation. And, also at the center of making sure that all students have access to resources, services, technologies, and networks.

You both instinctively know how to take advantage of opportunities. You see them everywhere. That’s what we need to help the librarians to see and then to know what to do with them. . .

The slow but steady attrition in the school library field is no accident. It’s not because “they don’t understand us.” It’s not because “we haven’t gotten the message out.” It’s because many programs aren’t delivering.

Many of you are out there leading change.

The revolution can happen.  And it can happen in our blogs, through our tweets, in our libraries.
It will not happen if we are asleep at the wheel.  It will not happen if we do not assume responsibility for our own retooling.

This is the year of redefinition.  Frankly, it’s definition or death.  Some of you thought I was cold when I suggested that folks lead, follow, or get out of the way.

I know many of you are out there are working hard.

But it is not about working hard. It is about working smart. It is about marketing. It is about redefining. Before it is too late.  This is the year.

Seth Godin’s post was generally addressing public libraries, but all librarians can take note and possibly take offence. As Dr Valenza states, stuff is happening. This blog is evidence of some of the kinds of wonderful stuff that is happening in school, public and academic libraries in Australia and around the world. This blog is evidence that there are many wonderful librarians and teacher librarians who have embraced change and developed what could only have been dreamed of a few years ago. The Twitter community to which I belong and contribute to is a testament to the incredibly committed professionals that are librarians and teacher librarians. They contribute so much, that I often worry that they are not having holidays, not having weekends and not having enough downtime to recover from their hectic work and personal lives. This cohort of hardworking and sharing professionals blows my mind. And many of them are from Australia. We may be only a percentage of educators, librarians and teacher librarians, but hour after hour, day after day, we are proving Seth Godin wrong. However, we need everyone to jump on board and help define the future of libraries. Be a part of the change. Drive the change. Make a difference. Enjoy the change. Enjoy the challenge. Learn. Share. Listen. Talk. Lead.

Of course to be able to implement change effectively, we need appropriate staffing and budgets in public and school libraries. Although many Web 2.0 tools are free, we need appropriately qualified and trained library staff to investigate, develop and maintain any sites that are relevant and useful to their students and staff.

Buffy Hamilton, author of the Unquiet Librarian blog has added her thoughts and collated a list of other bloggers  (including our own brilliant Jenny Luca) who have responded to Seth Godin’s post.

Seth Godin, thinker, social media expert, and marketing guru, set off a firestorm yesterday with his post, “The Future of Libraries.” While the post is directed toward public libraries, librarians from all walks of life jumped in with their responses:

Other posts include

I would love to have some comments on this issue, but let me leave you with a few quotes about change:

  • He who rejects change is the architect of decay.  The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.  ~Harold Wilson
  • If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.  ~Mary Engelbreit
  • It is not necessary to change.  Survival is not mandatory.  ~W. Edwards Deming
  • When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.  ~Victor Frankl
  • Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.  ~Robert C. Gallagher
  • Change always comes bearing gifts.  ~Price Pritchett
  • If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.  ~Author Unknown
  • We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance.  ~Harrison Ford
  • Our only security is our ability to change.  ~John Lilly

Any stories of change within your library and how it came about would be more than welcome.

14 thoughts on “The Future of the Library, yet again

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  3. Whilst Seth’s post had more of a focus on public libraries, it seems apparent to me that these issues are even *more* relevant to school libraries.

    As children and school students, we develop our ideas of what a library (and a librarian) is, through our school libraries. Not everybody has used a public library, or an academic library, or a state library – but everybody has grown up with a school library. And a school librarian.

    And as school libraries, we definitely set the standard, when it comes to marketing our profession.

    If we refuse to be pro-active in embedding emerging technologies and current information literacy skills in our library programs – and, instead just go with the traditional shelves and quiet spaces – then that’s all your students are going to expect from any other library that they go to. And we can be so much more.

    And it’s more than just being “social media experts” – it’s about being change agents when it comes to using information in schools. We need to keep stone rolling, to keep up with the times. Librarians should be running professional development sessions for their teaching staff, and providing a good mix of online resources, in addition to print resources, and the guidance for teaching staff and students to learn how to evaluate new media, and incorporate it into their curriculum.

    And yes, I know that this is how librarians see their role. However, Seth’s post demonstrates that this is currently *not* how the non-librarians see the role of the librarian. And this is certainly of concern – if the library’s community doesn’t see the librarian as their “information sherpa”, then chances are that they’re going to be struggling to scale the ever-growing mountain of information in their lives (to take the analogy to new lengths).

    Furthermore – going back to the social media comment – librarians need to be leaders in the school community in challenging the barriers that are currently in place in a lot of schools, when it comes to new forms of information media – social media, streaming media, mobile technology, etc. It’s a central part of the world in which we live in, and yet there are still many schools that would rather prefer that it didn’t exist.


  4. Thanks Andrew for your thoughtful and informative comment. We have had problems with the perception of our role forany years now and as teacher librarians are disappearing duecto a combination of an ageing profession and budget cuts, it is vital that we all act now.

  5. Wonderful assessment and response to Seth’s blog. I had many of the same thoughts and feelings as I read it. I think that many are fighting change because they are unsure of what it will look like. We are nostalgic about our own library expereinces and are afraid to have those replaced with new models. And yet, everything must change to survive. (I love your change quotes at the end of the post). What we need to focus on is the brilliance that the new library will offer, what new experiences it will allow. We need to look toward the future, embracing what is good.

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  8. The issues identified with libraries and librarians can be well applied to other education content areas. Many well-intentioned educators have been working so hard they have not taken the time to keep up with the changes – or they have simply had blinders on. Many thanks to you and other professionals who are being those change agents.

    • Thanks for your reply. You are so right that there are numerous reasons why educators have not kept up with the pace of change. Here’s hoping we can all make a difference.

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  11. This really is a subject critically crucial that you us all. The assortment, categorization and upkeep (and preservation) with the content material we create will be the pursuit with the librarian, archivist and historian………….

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