Last week’s “The Digital Shift” virtual event, “Reinventing Libraries,” produced by Library Journal and School Library Journal, looked at the broad spectrum of ways in which libraries are remaking themselves and rethinking their missions—and how to accomplish them—in the digital age. Throughout the day, panelists gave presentations, took questions from honing new skills, developing new ones, and thinking ahead about what assets will make a successful library—and a successful librarian—in the future. To set the tone, LJ and SLJ editorial director Rebecca Miller sat down with five of the leading thinkers in libraries today—Dan Cohen, founder and executive director of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) director Susan Hildreth, American Library Association (ALA) president and Syracuse professor Barbara Stripling, University of Illinois dean of libraries John Price Wilkin, and Deborah Jacobs, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative—as they offered their thoughts on what the future holds.
While most librarians know the services they provide extend beyond book checkout, a running theme of the keynote was the need to improve the way libraries measure and quantify those services in order to help community members and local governments recognize their value. To Jacobs, this meant a fundamental re-imagining of how libraries report back on their worth. “We need to stop measuring outputs,” she said, “and start measuring outcomes.” Reliable measurements that can show what programs are working—and what programs aren’t—has long been a tenet of the Gates Foundation’s work in all the fields it supports. The foundation ensures that grantees track how money is spent and what real world impacts they see, comparing those results against the impacts that were anticipated to offer a look at where programs exceed expectations, and where they may fall short.The foundation recently revamped the way it measures performance for its international partner libraries using the Common Impact Measurement System. Domestically, you can see an example of the tracking of a New York grant here. Finding new ways to more effectively determine impact will also be the subject of a panel at LJ‘s Directors Summit in Chicago this November.
In the last few years, IMLS has also put an increasing emphasis on being able to demonstrate real world impacts of the grants it makes to state libraries through its Measuring Success initiative, which started in 2011 as a way to track and evaluate the effectiveness of grant-funded programs. “Evidence-based activities make a difference,” Hildreth said. “Being able to show impact will help us gain the resources we need.”
The keynote conversation also drove home the need for libraries to be more collaborative, sharing their new programs and solutions to common problems more readily with colleagues outsides their own system. While one size doesn’t fit all, panelists were eager to see more ideas that could be easily adapted to a wide variety of libraries. The theme was a familiar one, with collaboration between libraries, businesses, and non-profits taking center stage at the ALA conference earlier this year, where a new international partnership between the Chicago Public Library and Denmark’s Aarhus Public Library, financed in part by the Gates Foundation was announced, among other collaborations.
“We’re libraries. We share,” said Jacobs. “Why aren’t we sharing more innovations?” Hildreth echoed the sentiment, saying that IMLS is working to identify trends in libraries across the country and model reactions and responses to them to see what works and what doesn’t without applying a one-size-fits-all model. “We’re trying to develop replicable, scalable approaches,” Hildreth said of IMLS initiatives. “We have venture capital to see how a variety of approaches work or don’t work.”
Wilkins, meanwhile, pointed to places where he says collaboration is already working well, such as the HathiTrust and other projects that allow libraries to move things into a shared space where they can have more impact without necessarily using more resources. As the former director of HathiTrust, Wilkins worked with fellow panelist Cohen to make more than three million pieces of open-access and public domain content hosted by HathiTrust available through DPLA earlier this year. That digital cooperation is the sort of move that the Gates Foundation is emphasizing going forward, according to Jacobs. “We need to be ever more virtual,” she said. “And we need to have the same amount of thought going into virtual presence as goes into physical space.”
Digital collaborations can help libraries expand their collections, while also freeing up physical library space. By offering access to a wider array of books and resources without making room for them physically, libraries can be more flexible in the ways they use their spaces, offering new services to patrons. Panelists saw opportunities to expand on the library’s traditional role as a center of learning by offering more places and activities to bring patrons together. “Physical space is an underrated library asset,” Cohen remarked, pointing out that amateurs and enthusiasts in communities can bring a lot of new practices and interests into their libraries. That may seem like a surprising sentiment from one of the forces behind the DPLA, but it was one echoed by other panelists as well. From being the home to Makerspaces like those the IMLS has started to invest grant money in to acting as incubators for hyper-local journalists and bloggers to providing access to continuing education by providing resources that let patrons participate in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), panelists agreed that physical library spaces need to continue their evolution from repositories of information to spaces for collaboration at the heart of their communities.
Panelists also seemed eager to see more failures in the industry, saying it would indicate more creative thinking and risk-taking by librarians that will be needed to keep libraries relevant in the face of technological changes that can’t be predicted. More outside-the-box thinking and readiness to invest in ideas that might not succeed were just a few of the strategies panelists saw that libraries could take from the business world. As Jacobs put it, “We need to be looking very seriously, like a business, at what we’re doing, what needs to be done, and where we can improve.”
In addition to analysis, panelists seemed to concur that libraries could take some cues from business on the advertising end, making a better case for funding by being more vocal to stakeholders about the services libraries provide. “Money doesn’t come without knowledge in the community of the value of libraries,” said Stripling. “It needs to be a positive effort, not just whining for more money, but being clear what our goals are and what we can accomplish within budgets.” Many of those goals and values are outlined in ALA’s Declaration of the Right to Libraries, a document the ALA released earlier this year to act as a blueprint for librarians and advocate to more effectively demonstrate the many ways in which libraries serve their communities.
While the keynote panelists saw plenty of challenges ahead for libraries, they were also sanguine that librarians across the country are positioning themselves well to overcome those obstacles, as well as unforeseen ones that are likely to crop up. From Cohen’s belief that despite the preeminence of Google, libraries can once again become the first place people visit when they need to do research, to Hildreth’s contention that new personalized services need to be balanced with traditional—and growing—concerns about privacy, the keynote panel reflected a sense that whatever libraries and librarians may face in the coming years, they’re up to the task. After all, Cohen pointed out, surveys show that libraries remain one of the most beloved public institutions in America year after year, and that community support should be considered an asset. “Libraries are well positioned to serve as really vibrant hubs in their communities,” said Hildreth. “We know we have the public trust, and we want to treasure and preserve that and use it make our communities strong.”