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Frail, fatal, fundamental: the future of public libraries.

Public libraries will survive and thrive by recognising their changing role. With the digital world of content, the role is shifting to that of content aggregators, access managers, and educators in digital literacy. Often pc skills workshops are filled with the same people who demonstrate digital dexterity in the knitting and quilting groups, but lack a new kind of digital dexterity in making a mouse or touch pad do what they want it to do. The questions public libraries have challenging them are 'what will be the future mix between digital and physical access to content and services', 'what service model will we adopt or adapt', and who has the skills to teach in the digital environment'? This paper is based on a presentation made to the city of Sydney's library staff development day 13 March 2012.


A few months ago I was at a meeting where a futurist was projecting the future of public libraries. He had interesting things to say but, upon reflection, was not suggesting anything wildly shocking or thought provoking about libraries--basically he was saying people crave knowledge and a sense of belonging to a community, so the future of libraries is sound and a physical building should reflect those very human desires. Those of us who work in libraryland already know this.

Having thought about the futurist I decided that when I come back in another life, I want to be either a futurist, or a meteorologist, because people seem very forgiving if what you say does not happen when you said it would, or does not happen at all. Imagine if you do not deliver on your annual workplan's KPIs and agreed targets. For example 'deliver accurate and timely forecasts that will guide the strategic direction of the organisation to ensure its viability through meeting the expectations of the community'. At your performance review, you say 'Sorry boss, I got it wrong'. And your manager says 'Don't worry about it. Hey, what do you think we should do next?'

Views on the future of public libraries

So, to the future of public libraries--we could spend days talking about this and be none the wiser. In research for this paper, here is what I found from futurists and library futurists--those who specialise in the future of libraries.

Jessica Reader says that

Libraries are a place for social transformation.
   They're a place that you can go to get computer
   access, or access to technology that you can't get
   anywhere else, and access to people. I think one
   of our greatest resources in a library are the
   librarians. They're able to help people track
   things down and make connections, and really
   bring the skills of a community together in one
   place. (1)

Phillip Torrone offers a series of suggestions at -to-rebuild-retool-public-libraries-and-make-techshops/about what libraries could become to stay relevant in the digital era. Instead of providing access to books, Torrone envisions a place where people will be able to go to engage in the making, creation or invention of things.

He sees TechShops, (2) Hackerspaces (3) and FabLabs (4) as contenders for what the library could be. Rather than provide access to data everyone already has through the internet, he believes these new spaces should give more hands on opportunities to access technology that is expensive and out of reach. These spaces would include devices such as 3D printers, laser cutters and Cad stations. They would provide unfettered access to hacking, robotics, fabrication--providing public spaces for people to learn about these field. (5)

New York city may be the utopia Torrone thinks he is living in (98% of NY city's population has broadband access) but the reality is that only 46% of NY city's population subscribe to high speed internet connection. In the Rockdale local government area, (6) 46% of the population either have no internet connection (27.3%) or only dialup connection (18.9%). This census statistic clearly indicates that Torrone's assertion that everyone has access to the internet does not hold true for Rockdale city or New York city. So, the data, and access to data, that libraries provide is essential for active and equitable participation in a digital world.

It is not unusual for like minded creative people to band together to share the cost of rented warehouse space to set up community or cooperative art studios, dance rehearsal spaces, men's sheds--sometimes with government or council assistance. Torrone is suggesting that not only is the space required, but now the tools required have shifted from canvas, paint, clay, and hand tools, to sophisticated and expensive technologies beyond the means of most technocreative people. So, the answer is ... the public library. Public libraries will survive by providing these spaces, technology and staff to meet the needs of an emerging technocreative community.

In Richard Watson's Top Trends (7) blog In praise of public libraries and librarians he comments on the fact that he predicted the extinction of public libraries some time ago, 'because, in an age of ebooks and Google who needs them' but that since this prediction he has changed his mind.
   I got it totally wrong. Probably. Whether or not we
   will want libraries in the future I cannot say, but I can
   categorically state we will need them, because
   libraries aren't just about the books they contain.
   Moreover, it is a big mistake, in my view, to confuse
   the future of books or publishing with the future of
   public libraries. They are not the same thing.

Watson believes public libraries will have a future if they are places that are 'more than mere facts, information or content but are 'ideas hubs' where librarians act as catalysts in helping develop these ideas.

Jim Scheppke (8) writes about two new libraries that he feels are future ready.
   When you walk in you won't see any service
   counters. There aren't any. That's because the
   library staff are all on their feet, engaging
   customers at their point of need. And I mean all
   of the staff. The old hierarchies between
   librarians and support staff are gone too. The
   staff use hands free voice technology so they can
   work together and share everyone's knowledge
   and ability to serve customers. (the libraries are
   in Vancouver and Washington).

At another library
   there is no circ desk! Library users check out
   their own materials at the convenient rfid
   circulation stations. Staff carry around an iPad
   using a special glove like holder to assist
   customers. Who needs a desk when you literally
   have the web in the palm of your hand? What
   used to be called the desk reference is dead. The
   desks are gone in these future ready libraries.
   The new trend is roving reference high tech
   and high touch. And yes, we have mobile
   reference--chat and text too. Customers love
   it. (library is in Kenton, Oregon)

Views of a realist

These are viewpoints from futurists, and specialist library futurists. Now to the views of a realist--me. My current role is to manage Rockdale city council's library and community information services across six libraries, ensuring staff provide consistent and relevant services that hopefully exceed user expectations. In striving to exceed them, the staff and I need to examine all that we do and offer, measure its value--and ask difficult questions. Questions such as

* why do we do this?

* how many are we serving through this?

* what do our users want us to do?

* how much will it cost (staff, consumables, space, technology)?

* and most importantly, what will we stop doing so we can pursue something new?

Interlibrary loans: charges

In 2011 quite a few people were upset when I recommended to Swift NSW libraries (9) that fees for interlibrary loans (ILL) should be around $18.00--close to the fee indicated by our own professional association, the Australian Library and Information Association and adopted by many academic libraries.

The ILL fee was settled at $6.00 for our users and for other libraries' users too. How could we charge our users $6.00, but not charge a user in the adjoining local government authority the same fee? (10) The criticism from my staff and staff from other libraries was that I was trying to kill the ILL service; that staff had spent their career specialising in ILL services and I was destroying their career--did I not recognise that Tafe or university library courses had ILL services as a specialty, and that users loved the ILL service? Well, they would at $2.20 for a labour intensive process involving two or more libraries. For less than a cup of coffee, a title would be sourced and sent to users anywhere. In evaluating the cost, it seemed to me that the ILL service within public libraries is like the opera within the arts sector--heavily subsidised by all of us through our taxes (or by ratepayers) for the enjoyment of a few.

A mayor did receive press coverage saying what a sad day it was for public libraries when there was a charge placed on the ILL service. That mayor neglected to say that his council's library charges for computer access and stops users borrowing at the first 50 cents overdue fine. As for our users--there was not one complaint.

Requests for ILLs are filtered by the desire of the user for the title versus the fee for the service. That happens now at a $6.00 fee, and it happened at a $2.20 fee. Yes, the number of requests for ILLs has dropped. The fee filter has made users think about how seriously they need the title. The two ILL staff now work in other library service areas, and one spends only a few hours each week on ILL requests. I raise this backlash against a fee increase for a library service which some see as a core library service, but I see it as a value added service, to illustrate the profession's reluctance to look at the real costs of services and the real pressures to do more with the same, or less, funding. How can we keep saying 'we can do that' or 'we should be doing that', without sustainable and committed budget growth? Something has to give. As a profession, we need to examine what that give will be.

One colleague was so incensed by the ILL fee increase that I was challenged with the question 'so why don't you charge for storytime then?' It is a good question. No service should be exempt from critical analysis. After all, should not parents be responsible for their children's growth in literacy? Think how much each storytime session costs--professional and paraprofessional staff designing and delivering sessions, transportation of materials to branch libraries, training staff, monitoring the quality and consistency of delivered sessions across a multiple branch library service. We decided not to charge for storytime because we thought a key role of public libraries is developing literacy and a sense of community. Each parent/caregiver usually borrows 20-30 items after each session--that is a good return on investment in the collection. Those babies and toddlers will hopefully refresh our ageing user profile. Storytime therefore remains a core library service.

The importance of evaluation

We should constantly be in a state of evaluation to ensure services remain relevant to the community we serve--and in large LGAs there could be differing communities. We can have different roles depending on the expectations and demographics of emerging, static or declining communities across one LGA. If there is a large homebound population, a library may want to focus more of its budget towards home library services. A baby boom in some suburbs may require more resources being moved into children's services for the library closest to this growing user base. Consider a library serving a population where 46% of the residents come from a Cald background, but only 20% of the budget is targeted to that group. Or a library that does not have a dvd collection because it believes it should not compete with the local dvd store. What of the competition with the local bookstore--if it exists anymore? Is our role to give the community what they want which might be more Cald materials and services, or a dvd collection? Or is our role to give our community what we think they need?

Evidence based practice

Evidence based practice shifts our thinking from what, as professionals, we think our community wants or needs, to 'service delivery ... increasingly being informed by community consultation and engagement and careful analysis and evaluation...' (11) The user's experience will become a key measurement of success, far outweighing standard questions such as 'did you find the book you wanted?' At Kogarah, we had a four year library strategic plan. What we considered important services when it was written may not be as relevant in the future.

Digital content

Surely the future of public libraries rests in providing access to digital content. We read so much about the death of bookstores (and the bleak future of public libraries) due to the emergence of ebook and eaudio services. Public libraries which are fortunate to have budgets large enough to enable them to be early adopters of services such as OverDrive, Bolinda, Wavesound and Freegal, (12) should be concerned with the frailty of the aggregators' relationships with various publishers. Earlier this year 'Penguin announced that it will not distribute new ebook and digital audiobooks to libraries after it severed ties with OverDrive* ... (and they) created hurdles** for Kindle users to access already circulating ebooks by requiring that they be downloaded onto a computer and transferred to an ereader through the usb port'. (13) Random House has just announced a 300% increase in ebook prices. Harper Collins expire their ebooks after 26 downloads. Simon & Schuster do not allow any of their ebook titles to be lent by libraries.

For a medium sized library service, a subscription to an ebook service may cost $40,000 each year. Early adopters are seeing an ebook turnover figure of less than 2.0 loans per title compared to the turnover figure for pbooks of 5-6. How can that level of expenditure be justified, and locked in for a minimum of three years? Worse is how some libraries have decided to pay for this new service from the physical book vote believing that a 'book is a book' whether it is physical or electronic. And of course it is. But the issue is equitable access. One could argue that if users can afford an ebook reader and a pc for downloading content, should the library be subsidising their desire for ebook titles? The Freegal music download service is not adding any titles to a library's collection. Libraries are paying a hefty annual service fee to allow users to download three songs free each week. Freegal receives access to our user base and free advertising within libraries--and we pay it.

The digital divide

A key role for public libraries is to bridge the digital divide between those that have access, and those that do not, to a rapidly increasing digital world. Jill Priluck sees libraries now as 'as digital destinations'. But is the digital divide about access to ebooks and eaudio, or about having the skills and access to technology to enable users to navigate through ecommerce, information and services? For thousands of years the library's role was to systematically house, and eventually, to lend books. They have acted as physical aggregators on behalf of the community, making sure content was available in old forms (books) and new forms (vinyl records, cassettes, vhs tapes, cdroms, framed paintings, dvds and cds).

Will libraries and books go the way of the LP record, cassette and vhs tape? People predicted the end of live theatre when cinema spread throughout the cities; then television was going to bring an end to filmmaking and cinema. Theatre and cinema are now recognised as art forms and both have survived the onslaught of now affordable technology--the home cinema.

Public libraries will survive and thrive by recognising their changing roles. With the digital world of content, the role is shifting to that of content aggregators, access managers, and educators in digital literacy. Often pc skills workshops are filled with the same people who demonstrate digital dexterity in the knitting and quilting groups, but lack a new kind of digital dexterity in making a mouse or touch pad do what they want it to do. The questions public libraries have challenging them are

* what will be the future mix between digital and physical access to content and services?

* what service model will we adopt or adapt?

* who has the skills to teach in the digital environment?

A new business is needed

One of the best papers I read last year was by Robert McEntyre, former executive director of the then NSW Metropolitan Public Library Association (MPLA). He wrote about the need for public libraries to consider a new business model. (14) Of course, there was outrage about the 'McDonaldsisation' of libraries--the antithesis of what we believe we are--responsive to the uniqueness of local communities and not homogenised and supersized. McEntyre was not saying that at all. He was saying, as a sector, we are inefficient. We replicate so many services, so many time consuming and expensive tenders and contracts with providers, in the name of being responsive to our unique communities--when in reality those communities are more alike than we want to believe. His view was that we can gain efficiencies through modeling our business on service providers such as McDonalds, IBM and OPSM--standardised, centralised, with partnerships and outsourcing, and with thoroughly tested, responsive delivery and technical services. McEntyre cites the decision of 68 councils in South Australia who are all putting money, along with significant SA Libraries Board funding, into a project for a single library management system (LMS), permitting a single library membership card for the entire state network of public libraries. The LMS will be 'managed centrally rather than being duplicated by every council' with savings 'expected on price because 68 councils are buying in bulk, and there will be improvements in staff flexibility and training costs'. (15) Staff will be able to move between councils without having to learn the intricacies of a new LMS at each library. One would hope that there will be agreed policies across the state, putting an end to comments such as 'my users wouldn't accept moving from a four week loan period to three weeks', 'my council won't agree to overdue fees rising to 25c per item', or 'we couldn't provide free reservations--we'd be swamped with requests'.

Changing the way libraries work

Sydney metropolitan public libraries do have consortia--formal and informal--built around programs such as HSC preparation, or shared library management systems, or shared selection of library materials. This is a clear demonstration of the willingness of some to be open and share experience and knowledge. While there seems not a widespread willingness to streamline the way we do things through working together, for McEntyre there is an economic imperative that says we have to change the way we work. We cannot work with such large amounts of public funding (nationally nearly $900 million per year (16)) and remain isolated fiefdoms. The myth of the public library is that it provides free access to information. It does not. Our communities pay for that access through rates and taxes. Lankes (17) states that
   We must look up from the day to day reality of
   staff shortages, toner cartridges, and cataloging
   backlogs ... (and) prove to others and ourselves
   every day that librarianship is not clerical, nor
   about materials, or about the building.
   Librarianship is about improving society.

Can we do this in splendid isolation?

In the UK and the US some public libraries are having a hard time just keeping their doors open. In the UK four options have been proposed (18) to ensure the survival of public libraries

* running libraries in partnership with the private sector, charities and other councils

* integrating the libraries with churches, shops and village halls and provide health and police services from within the libraries

* sharing back of house services and mobile libraries with neighbouring councils

* encouraging users to run the library services themselves (it's so easy to run a library isn't it?)

Partnerships, opportunities, challenges

When I asked my 15 and 18 year old sons what future public libraries have--they said 'none'. They have books, the internet and gaming at home. They have a garage for their band practice. What would get them to go to a library? They said access to an audio recording suite, a media lab for editing videos to upload to YouTube, and film making classes and someone to teach them how to use all this technology. Are these new opportunities for public libraries? Having managed student audio and media labs, I know how expensive these environments are, both in terms of set up costs, annual maintenance and replacement costs, and expertise. If our community engagement indicates that this is what the community wants, then that is where we should be headed.

Some may see these sorts of facilities and services belonging to an art gallery--and the local art gallery and library may both have stronger survival opportunities through partnering with each other. But, in the absence of a local gallery, will the library take up this opportunity to meet the needs of its community?

In a paper a colleague and I wrote for the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (Lianza) about what we were doing at Kogarah Library and Cultural Services, we said
   In order for the library to remain relevant, our
   thinking, planning and focus had to shift from
   books, loans, reference enquiries and controlling
   noise, to intentionally making connections into
   the community to work from the outside in,
   with all the diverse cultural, socioeconomic and
   educational facets of the community. (19)

Boaden and Clement (20) note that a
   seamless and flexible integration of cultural
   spaces ... and programs ... increases community
   access and participation to foster education and
   lifelong learning as well as a sense of identity
   and community cohesion.

A cultural space is not a multipurpose meeting room. A number of building projects I am currently involved with are placing an emphasis on shelving on wheels, and flexible meeting rooms. While these aspects of building design are important, Boaden and Clement are talking about a much bolder design--that of bringing together a library and gallery space, a library and museum, a library and a theatre. 'Together' as in colocated in the one building, with one management team and with a synergy between planning and programs.

To quote again from the Lianza paper
   Looking towards new possibilities for libraries
   has long been a part of library practice. The
   experimentation with other names for libraries in
   past decades could be seen as a pointer towards
   this type of thinking. The aim has been to present
   the library in a new light and names such as
   Information Resources Centre, Cybrary, Ideas
   Store, and let's not forget the Interactive
   Learning Centre (21) have sought to express the
   idea that the library is new and different. But
   when the delivery of the service or the structure
   of the library did not significantly change from
   the traditional forms, it became more of a
   passing trend than a new approach to library

Third places

The idea of the library as a community's 'third place' has been embraced by many libraries. Oldenburg's (22) 'third places' provide a neutral space where members of a community can gather, interact, create or just 'be'. In contrast to a number of other third places, where there is usually a prime focus for gathering--sporting clubs, churches, gyms, pubs, theatres, cinemas or music events--libraries, museums and galleries are developing new roles and services in addition to their prime role of managing collections--be they library collections, or collections that have artistic, historical, or scientific importance. With the first place being home, and the second place being work, school or university, third places allow people to explore their interests or join with others with shared interests. Oldenburg sees third places as being at the heart of a community's social vibrancy. (23)

Frey (24) says that a
   Culture based library is one that taps into the
   spirit of the community, assessing priorities and
   providing resources to support the things deemed
   most important ... individual communities will be
   charged with developing an overall strategy that
   reflects the identity and personality' of its own

In conclusion

We could discuss the future of public libraries for days, and still be none the wiser--unless we invite our community to the table. If I could accurately predict the future for public libraries, many futurists would be unemployed, but here goes. Our future lies--probably--in

* proactive community and stakeholder connection

* promoting our value to our community and to society

* programming centred on literacies, storytelling, lifelong learning and culture

* planning a strategic focus for library services

* providing community collection development opportunities

* pursuing consortia opportunities for economies of scale and consistent user experience

* prodding sacred cows and pushing away feelings of nostalgia.

Dysart concludes that
   Kinder, gentler libraries are dead, and there will
   be winners and losers. The winners have solid
   strategies and action plans that support and align
   with (their) community. They are so embedded
   in their communities that funding and resources
   are not issues. However, my vision is even
   bigger, put partnerships and collaborative projects
   together ... These successful libraries have a
   strong voice in their community. (25)

And the losers? Will they be libraries limping along on long held views of the common good?


(1) Reader, J Are maker spaces the future of public libraries? Shareable website 2011 http://www.

(2) TechShops are a space for inventers, makers, hackers, tinkers, artists, roboteers, families and anyone else who wants to make things but don't have the tools, space or skills. Torrone says the operating cost of a TechShop is not much more than annual cost of running a public library

(3) Hackerspaces are a location where people with common interests, usually in computers, technology, science or digital or electronic art can meet, socialize and/or collaborate, sharing resources and knowledge to build and make things

(4) FabLabs are small scale workshops with an array of flexible computer controlled tools with the aim to make 'almost anything'. This includes technology enabled products generally perceived as limited to mass production

(5) Schenker, D The future of public libraries PSFK website 2011 2011/03/the-future of public-libraries.html# ixzzloZfSnelN

(6) Local government area

(7) Watson, R 2011, In praise of public libraries-and librarians Richard Watson's top trends website 2011

(8) Scheppke, J Public libraries that are future ready SLA future ready 365 website 2011

(9) Ashfield, Botany Bay, Burwood, Kogarah, Marrickville and Strathfield NSW public libraries

(10) Burwood Library decided not to charge other libraries the $6.00 ILL fee, only its own users

(11) Mackenzie, C Emerging themes for public libraries looking forward Milan, Ifla conference 2009

(12) Online service providers in the Australian market

(13) Priluck, J Harry Potter and the future of public libraries website Business times 2012 libraries/#ixzzloCPzoQQ1

(14) McEntyre, R The McDonald's public library system of 2020 Logan City Qld QPLA conference 2011

(15) ibid

(16) ibid

(17) Lankes, D Expect more: service is proactive Website Virtual Dave ... real blog 2011

(18) Museums, Libraries and Archives Future libraries: change, options and how to get there UK, MLA 2011 10161/home/-/j ournal_content/56/10161/ 88839/NEWS-TEMPLATE

(19) Heald, L and Norman, M Community connection: developing a public library's collection and services from the outside in Dunedin NZ, Lianza 2010 conference

(20) Boaden, S and Clement, C Beyond colocation to convergence designing and managing new public library spaces and services Turin, Ifla 2009 conference

(21) ABC TV The Librarians television series 2010

(22) Oldenberg, R The great good place New York, Marlowe & Company 1991

(23) Heald, L and Norman, Mop cit

(24) Frey, T Future libraries and 17 forms of information replacing books website 2012 -libraries-and-the-17-forms-of-informationreplacing-books/

(25) Dysart, J Kinder, gentler libraries are dead SLA 2011 conference tweets

* http://www.thedigitalshift.corrd2012/02/ebooks/penguin- groupterminating-its-contract-with-overdrive/

** _library_borrowing_to be difficult.htm!

Mark Norman Coordinator Library & Community Information Services Rockdale City NSW

Received April 2012

Mark Norman is the coordinator of library & information services at Rockdale city council in Sydney NSW. Prior to Rockdale, he was manager library and cultural services at Kogarah for over four years. He has worked in the tertiary education sector as a manager of media and educational technology departments, a teacher of television production, photography and media studies, and in senior management positions in university libraries. Mark also teaches business management subjects at Tafe. Email
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Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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