The Library of the Future (Part 1): A Privatised Future?

Background

I am co-facilitating a day’s workshop on “Future Technologies and Their Applications” at the ILI (Internet Library International) conference in London next month. This MOOC is providing an ideal opportunity for me to think about issues which myself and Tony Hirst, my workshop co-facilitator, should address at the event. In particular the MOOC is enabling me to reflect on the role of the library in the future, going beyond the technologies which will be the main focus of the workshop.

Highlights of The Library of the Future in Plain English Video

One of the recommended readings (viewings?) for the MOOC is the YouTube video entitled “Library of the Future in Plain English” by Mal Booth, Sophie McDonald and Belinda Tiffen of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Library.

The video begins by announcing “The Library of the Future will be very different to the way we do business now“. But how will they be different? It seems that the current library environment has little to offer to the modern environment:

Libraries can be fun places to work, but they are also part of large organizations and therefore can be bureaucratic, with a very hierarchical organization structure. Often, the task we have to perform will be carried out in different departments. This can lead to silos where there is little communication between staff in different areas. Decision making is top down. That’s old way, boo!”

However in the future:

…  we’ll need to rethink our work conditions. Library staff work regular hours. We’re not quite 9 to 5 because libraries are often open long hours. But we will all come to work and spend most of our day at our desk in a back room probably with some rusted time at a service desk in the public spaces. This old way of doing things isn’t going to fit with the new library.

 As well as changes to working hours, the work environment will change:

The new library will be available 24/7 and online will be just as important as the physical building. We’ll have to have staff working flexible hours who may not be in the library building at all. They might work from home and use mobile technology to provide information services from almost any location, from a cafe, to a classroom. Librarians will be both online and in the physical library and that means a whole new service model.

and librarians will have to move out of their offices:

Librarians love to help people and connect them to information and ideas. But sometimes, it could be hard for people to approach us when we’re behind desks or hidden away in offices. We can see more authoritative and anonymous to our clients or like we are there to enforce rules rather than help. We all know and hate the stereotype of the pearl-wearing librarian who goes around shushing people, boo! A new service model will let us show that librarians are creative experimental and open. We could become part of research teams embedded in faculties, coaching facilitating and offering new services in ways which are proactive providing advice in the information before our clients even know they need it. We can borrow ideas from other sectors like retail.Think of the Apple store where there are always geniuses to help you and the service feels personal. We can go in further by letting our personality show, especially online where we can use services like Facebook to create profiles and connect with the people who would most benefit from our expertise in ways which are collaborative.

The video clip goes on to describe address environmental issues:

Sustainability. The way we work now is very resource intensive, lots of paper consumption,
lots of printing, energy-intensive buildings, wasteful procurement processes, but that’s
the old way, boo! The new library buildings can be built to the highest grain specifications with features like rainwater collection, alternative energy use, waste water recycling and green furnishings.

 and modes of transport:

But sustainability isn’t just about the building. It’s about new attitudes and new ways of working. Libraries can encourage their staff to take public transport or walk or bicycle to work by providing storage areas for bikes, shower rooms and staff reward programs. It also models behavior for our  clients so there’s a ripple effect outwards.

Finally job titles, roles and responsibilities will change:

The people who work in libraries are generally classified by their position, the props of material they work with or by their role in the hierarchy as managers or workers. These kinds of roles are not going to suit the new way of doing things. We need to have much more fluid and adaptable roles. Would you rather be a cataloger, an IT technician or a media curator, a learning and gaming consultant. In the Library of the Future, we’ll need people who are creative, open to challenges and tolerant of mistakes. People who are team based and client focused, rather than hierarchical and rules focused. The new librarian is open to new possibilities and is constantly evolving.

Reflections From A Concerned UK Citizen

The video is one of a series of recommended readings for the first module of the Hyperlinked Library MOOC, which addresses The Hyperlinked Library Model & Participatory Service. The tone of the MOOC, the associated discussions and the resources is very up-beat and optimistic about the future of the “hyperlinked library”. But this optimism jars for someone who has been working in the UK  and has been observing recent changes in the public sector, including higher education and public libraries.

In the UK we have been seeing a ‘perfect storm’. Others on this MOOC will be very aware of the changes which rapid technological developments continue to provide – and this MOOC is about how such changes can be implemented in a library context. The implications of the economic crisis will also be widely appreciated, although this will have affected the MOOC participants differently, in light of the geographical spread of the participants. However the implications of the political changes in the UK are likely to have had direct relevance to the six or so MOOC participants who have geo-located their institution as being in the UK.

In brief we have seen the coalition government introducing significant increases in tuition fees for students going to university and cuts in funding for public libraries which is leading to closures of public libraries. In addition to the changes in the political and economic environment CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals is currently looking to change its name, which has led to heated debate about the rebranding and the role of the professional body.

With this backdrop, the positivity of much of the discussions and the associated reading materials on The Hyperlinked Library MOOC seems to ignore the realities of the library environment in the UK. Voices For The Library, a campaigning organisation in the UK has published a manifesto which describes its vision for the role of public library services. I have annotated a number of the key points from the Library of the Future video, outlining how the library of the future could be implemented. This vision of the future is not necessarily one which the Voices For The Library would endorse!

What They Said What They Might Mean
Libraries can be fun places to work, but they are also part of large organizations and therefore can be bureaucratic, with a very hierarchical organization structure. Often, the task we have to perform will be carried out in different departments. This can lead to silos where there is little communication between staff in different areas Libraries reflect the welfare state environment which has been discredited. We are going to change things.
 we’ll need to rethink our work conditions. Library staff work regular hours. We’re not quite 9 to 5 because libraries are often open long hours. But we will all come to work and spend most of our day at our desk in a back room probably with some rusted time at a service desk in the public spaces. This old way of doing things isn’t going to fit with the new library. We’ll extend your working hours (but don’t expect to receive any more pay!)
We’ll have to have staff working flexible hours who may not be in the library building at all. They might work from home and use mobile technology to provide information services from almost any location, from a cafe, to a classroom You’ll still be on duty at home or during your social hours!
But sometimes, it could be hard for people to approach us when we’re behind desks or hidden away in offices. We’ll run a knocking campaign in the tabloid papers to gain public support for the changes.
We can see more authoritative and anonymous to our clients or like we are there to enforce rules rather than help. We all know and hate the stereotype of the pearl-wearing librarian who goes around shushing people, boo! Tabloid editors, feel free to use those stereotypes. Why do you think we mentioned them!
We can borrow ideas from other sectors like retail. Think of the Apple store where there are always geniuses to help you and the service feels personal. We don’t have to imitate the commercial sector – we can invite the commercial sector to run the libraries. Yes, we are talking about privatisation!
The way we work now is very resource intensive, lots of paper consumption, lots of printing, energy-intensive buildings, wasteful procurement processes, but that’s the old way, boo! Forget the irrelevant comments about “rainwater collection”. Libraries are  “very resource intensive” and we’re going to change that.
Libraries can encourage their staff to take public transport or walk or bicycle to work by providing storage areas for bikes, shower rooms and staff reward programs. No car parking (except for senior managers). We’ve sold the car parks to property developers. And with staff reward programs we can reduce wages.
We need to have much more fluid and adaptable roles Which will enable us to reduce wages
The new librarian is open to new possibilities and is constantly evolving.  Our plans are still evolving. We wonder whether we can explore income generation deals with Facebook and Amazon – we deliver the customers’ eyeballs and the shareholders make the money.

The development of the hyperlinked library of the future goes beyond the technologies. But it also needs to address the political and economic context in which the library service operates. I’d therefore invite a discussion of these issues.

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7 thoughts on “The Library of the Future (Part 1): A Privatised Future?”

  1. Hi Brian. Thanks for this and thanks for bringing it to my attention! I think I agree with much of what you say, to be honest. The video clip employs much of the kind of language we have come to expect. As always, it paints things in a way that, on the surface at least, seems agreeable and non-controversial. Of course, once you read between the lines it is clear that it is not necessarily a benign vision.

    “…fluid and adaptable roles…” – I’m all for being flexible in the workplace (indeed when I was a line manager I encouraged it) but how ‘fluid’ and ‘adaptive’ should they be? There are limits of course, particularly when the lines are blurred between work and home.

    “We can borrow ideas from other sectors like retail.” – I have mixed feelings about this, perhaps because I come from a retail background (I have found I had a little more scope to try things in retail than I have had in the public sector). BUT I do think we need to be wary about employing private sector terminology and I think that is something we, as a profession, largely fail at (I include myself in that by the way!). I think the creeping use of certain terminology actually damages us as a profession and the library as an institution. We are not ‘sales’ or ‘marketing executives’, we are librarians. If we are to suggest that these skills are necessary, do we not then make the case for people trained in those areas to take up the baton? I completed a marketing module on my LIS course, and I have a passing interest in it. But I am not a marketing expert. If I am to argue that we need better marketing, surely the solution (as ‘they’ would see it) is to employ a marketing executive, not a librarian? I don’t know. This is not to say we do not need to understand some of the techniques and ideas, but perhaps there is a need to tread carefully in this area?

    If nothing else, I think that this rather demonstrates the importance of language, its real meaning and its potential consequences. All of which are things which I think should concern all of us, across the profession and perhaps, at present, it doesn’t concern us as much as it should.

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