by Aaron Schmidt
Libraries have been following trends in the larger information world in an attempt to remain relevant. Libraries have strived to be nimble, flexible, and experimental, integrating popular tools and devices so that their offerings make sense to their patrons. Top Tech Trends panels at conferences prime librarians for what’s coming down the pike with the implication that libraries will gain some ground if they’re early adopters.
All of this is fine. Necessary, even. But it isn’t going to secure libraries a place in the future. Why?
This approach is reactive and it makes libraries beholden to the whims of industry. The current eBook quagmire is a perfect example of this. Most people that use commercial digital content are getting their needs filled outside of libraries. Some librarians cling to the notion of libraries as commercial content providers and are trying to fight over the remaining scraps.
This approach is shallow. It emphasizes matching library operations with people’s behaviors, not their motivations. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that some library users use Twitter. What really matters is that some library users want to broadcast their lives and read about other people’s lives. Libraries shouldn’t be concerned with using a hammer. They should be concerned with building something.
Instead of looking to technology for relevance, libraries ought to look at the lives of their patrons and the issues in their communities. Libraries user research budgets should be as big as their tech budgets. Libraries that do things like develop patron personas and conduct ethnographic studies will know not just what people do, but why they do it and what they’re trying to accomplish.
Those libraries can evolve into supportive, problem solving institutions, integrated into their communities.
Aaron Schmidt is the Digital Initiatives Librarian for the District of Columbia Public Library while residing in Portland, Oregon. For more information, view his blog, walkingpaper.org.