During small talk shortly after getting to know each other, the question “So what do you do you do?” inevitably comes up. comes up. When I tell them I’m a librarian, more questions follow. Usually the same ones over and over again, like, “Are people still using libraries?” or “Aren’t you worried about becoming irrelevant?” or “Are you worried about libraries going away?” I’m never asked how libraries are progressing or where I think libraries are going. The questions always have a negative tone.
The future of libraries isn’t something I’m worried about. They’ve been around longer than our modern memory likes to take into account. Libraries have a long history, 5,000 years – quite a long time. However, people worry about them because of modern technological developments such as the internet, computers and smartphones. The internet is 40 years old, computers less than 80 years old and smartphones have only been around for 30 years. It is bold to think that these advances would eliminate libraries instead of advancing them.
Libraries know where the world is going. Take the pre-pandemic shift to digital resources, for example. Hoopla, OverDrive and the Libby app have revolutionized the way libraries offer digital resources to their customers. These digital resources support library circulation numbers. Now users can download magazines, e-books and audio books through these apps to either read them directly in the app or send them to an e-reader. Hoopla also allows users to stream movies and music through the app. My local library recently developed their own app so users can browse the catalog, check their supplies, and keep up to date with events and stories. It even has a map feature to help you find the library near you. The library looked around the world and around its customers, saw a need, and then filled it. Smaller district libraries like mine find opportunities in their budgets to expand digitally.
Technology is at the forefront of the future of libraries. They understand that technology will be an integral part of their usefulness in the future. Many libraries set up things like makerspaces and recording studios. Not only are these spaces offered, but courses are available with community professionals to teach clients how to use these spaces effectively. If you’re looking to start your own podcast instead of pouring a ton of cash into what might be a passing hobby, check out your local library. They offer podcast equipment, professional lighting, and green screens. Often these makerspaces have recording in mind and are set up to absorb sound. If what held back your thriving TikTok career was poor lighting, the library has you covered. Not only do they have a room to record in if you want, but they also have tripods, cameras, and microphones for checkout that you can take home to hone your craft. More and more libraries are offering these and will continue to expand these programs in the future.
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Makerspaces are far beyond what they once were, and continue to redefine themselves over time. These aren’t just arts and crafts rooms with colored paper and beads anymore, although those still exist. They upped their game by adding sewing machines, tools for making fine jewelry, woodworking, and metalworking. Some makerspaces specifically focus on robotics and CAD design using 3D printers. There are programming stations and 3D carving machines. If you get stuck, librarians are available to provide you with resources on your next steps, whether it’s a book, a YouTube video, or an online tutorial. You are not alone in learning a new skill.
Speaking of physical rooms, libraries also make free flexible rooms available to community members. They are the original coworking spaces. People can reserve conference rooms, collaborate on projects in study areas, and provide quiet spaces when times of intense focus are needed. They are usually large enough to hold town hall meetings and gatherings. Libraries think of users with disabilities and take care to ensure they have access to the physical spaces. The Inclusive Library Initiative improves access for people with developmental disabilities by creating inclusive spaces. Some libraries have even set up sensory rooms to create a tranquil space for multi-sensory experiences for children and their families.
We haven’t even gotten to programming yet. Libraries have programs for everything from robotics to birdwatching to steerage. Programming is a place for libraries to expand in the future. The possibilities of what types of programs are offered are only limited by the imaginations of librarians and customers. If you can think of it and we can think of a way, there’s nothing stopping us from creating a new program.
But it’s not just about what libraries have; it’s who they serve. Libraries are known for promoting safe spaces for marginalized people. One of the largest marginalized communities where libraries serve is the homeless. Homelessness increased in 2020, making this community even bigger. Libraries provide shelter to people without shelter during the day, providing air conditioning in hot weather and warmth in the colder months. Many accommodations that offer overnight accommodation do not offer the same services during the day. During the day, people can search and apply for jobs in the library, read and participate in programming.
Another source of help from marginalized community libraries are immigrants and English learners. The Hartford Public Library, for example, has a program called The American Place (TAP) that “offers industry-recognized certificate training, GED prep services, English as a second language, and a nationally-recognized U.S. citizenship program that helps immigrants achieve citizenship and become eligible citizens.” navigating to a new place where you don’t speak the language is daunting to say the least. Libraries provide people learning English with a starting point and someone to connect with and help them navigate difficult documents.
The core values of the library
The American Library Association has core librarianship values in the Library Bill of Rights, the Freedom to Read Statement, and the ALA Mission Statement. The most important of these core values are the right of access to information, the right to privacy, democracy and diversity. Libraries are committed to promoting the creation, maintenance and improvement of a learning society to foster informed citizenship. They defend intellectual freedom and fight against censorship to help safeguard the common good. The ALA recognizes its broad social responsibility by committing to serving its patrons to the best of our ability through professionalism and mindful sustainability practices. With these values in mind, it’s easy to see a future of libraries that defend our values as well as the rights of our users.
Some libraries have come under attack in supporting the rights of users, particularly the LGBTQ+ community. Libraries that host drag queen story hours and some that only house LGBTQ+ materials have been targeted with things like losing funding. Thankfully, people resisted. People like writer Nora Roberts, who donated $50,000 to keep a West Michigan library running after they had funding withdrawn for refusing to discard LGBTQ+ materials. A place to donate to because a GoFundMe was created to keep her doors open. The fight for everyone’s right to free access to uncensored information will not end. It is a core value of libraries. In the future, this movement will expand.
Librarians are at the forefront of these issues. They are no longer just custodians of knowledge, they are events coordinators, technical assistance, community leaders, researchers, database maintainers, teachers, authors, budget analysts, grant writers, designers, fundraisers, media specialists, content creators, archivists and communications specialists. I haven’t even scratched the surface of academic or corporate librarians.
We must be fact dead. Flexibility is key to our ability to thrive and support our communities. Libraries are flexible and have been for many years. The pandemic is a perfect example of this elasticity. Libraries across the country shifted their services to better serve their communities. Curbside pickup became more widely available. Libraries reviewed hotspots, seed packets, and make-and-take kits. There were virtual storytelling sessions, events and book clubs. Call centers were established to support customers who were unfamiliar with digital resources but still needed information. The “business” for the library was booming.
Despite everything, the future of libraries is bright. Yes, there are book bans and challenges. Yes, there are financing problems. But there are also citizens who speak out against censorship at citizens’ meetings, and libraries that look to the future in terms of technology and barrier-free access.