Skip to the end! Library futures, now…

20 Sep
Picture of lego jetpack man

Weren't we all supposed to have jet-packs by now? (Flickr CC image by Tek F)


I was reading Bohyun Kim’s latest blog post this morning, in which she says this:

For a long time, libraries have been banning food and drinks inside the library. For librarians, books and food/drinks were not compatible. For users, they were the same kind of activity. You eat and drink while studying. So libraries eventually came to change the policies. That was a good decision for both libraries and users.

This really brought home to me the fact that libraries enforced a particular point of policy (no food and drink) for probably 99.9% of their history, and have changed it for the most recent 0.1%, and that really it’s been fine. The fears that informed the original policy – that the food and drink would damage the books – are sound, but modern publishing methods mean the book isn’t such a sacrosanct object anymore, plus (perhaps more importantly) even if some books do get damaged there is an overall gain in user satisfaction because a lot of them have been wanting to bring food and drink in for years. It’s a hit worth taking, in other words. Silence is another rule long those lines – libraries are getting noisier, with quiet zones dotted around in many of them, so again it’s a rule we’ve tried to enforce for all but the last 0.1% of library history, and now we’re finally changing to suit a new majority of users (in academic libraries particular).

So that got me to thinking, what else are currently trying to hold back, that we will inevitably have to allow in the end – and should we just skip straight to the part where we let it go? If users want to use us in a certain way, should we just let them and be done with it? Of course some people will be upset, but you demonstrably can’t please all of the people, all of the time, and we’re really not at a stage where we can afford to be elitist in terms of which group of users we satisfy.

I asked twitter what we will be doing in the future but don’t do now – here are some of the suggestions:

  • Lisa Hutchins said “Smaller borrowing limits for unlimited time periods along lines of DVD rental?”
    This is one I had in mind, too. Let people have stuff for longer, sanction them less or not at all if they don’t bring it back on time. LOVEFiLM and the like are built around the concept of no late fees. You don’t send the DVD back, you don’t get a new one – but you don’t accrue fines either. Could this work in libraries? More to the point, will we eventually have to find a way to make it work in libraries, in which case should we just do it now?
    Cons are that people could use the opportunity to effectively steal the books, that books in great demand would be unavailable to people, that libraries would have less money to spend on books if fines are actually a revenue stream for them (even though that isn’t their intended purpose). But I can imagine ways round those – you could have a no fines policy that is a bit like mobile phone companies’ unlimited use policy, ie there’s a little asterisk and it says ‘within reasonable limits’. I have ‘unlimited’ browsing on my iPhone but if I left Google Maps on for a month I’d certainly hear about it from Orange, and get charged. You could move the more popular books into a ‘high demand’ section which ran along more traditional lines, e.g with 2 week borrowing limits and fines – but put the majority of the collection in the LOVEFiLM model.
    Would that work? The big pro would be: people would find libraries more accessible, approachable, and usable. They’d be attracted by the relaxing of the rules.Lisa also pointed out that you couldn’t return books to other library branches back in the day, but you often can now. This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about – we resisted that change for years, with very good supporting arguments against it I’m sure, but now we’ve been forced to make it work and we have.
  • Sarah Maule suggested: “opening hours changing dramatically? i.e. open on a sunday being normal?”
    I can completely see this becoming the norm in thriving libraries, and the reverse being true of struggling ones. I can see in 5 or 10 years time that many libraries will be run by volunteers and will only open 3 afternoons a week, while the bigger ones with more traffic will open long hours 7 days a week (and academic libraries will open 24hrs as a matter of course). Obviously it costs more to staff and open libraries longer, but the counter to this would be that – again – they become more friendly, accessible, and usable, thus making them more likely to become part of people’s daily lives, thus getting more use, thus being of more value and so worth funding.
  • Rachel P pointed out: “Mobile phones/devices will be (even more) heavily used (we still ban talking on them here, but in theory only…)”
    Yes, let’s skip to the end of this one, too. We’re going to allow them. Mobile phones will be the devices from which humans basically run their lives before the decade is out – banning them will be completely out of the question. The majority of their use won’t be for talking on anyway. Just allow them, and tell people to go into stairwells and otherwise talk on them responsibly and with courtesy to others.
  • LibraryWeb said: “can only speculate – but think frontline staff will become much more highly skilled – not just a shelving job nowadays” and added “you should be able to ask any manager (& also the odd talented lib assistant :) the same question and get an answer”
    I completely agree with this – it doesn’t seem to such an issue in public libraries (although I may be wrong) but in academic libraries there’s a real culture of passing the customer from desk to desk – oh, you can’t do that here / I can’t help you with that, you need to go and speak to X or ask at Y. We need to be able to just answer stuff and help people. Would love to skip to the end with that one.
  • Mylee Joseph speculated that we’d offer “musical performances, tai chi classes before opening, cooking demonstrations, DIY broadcasting”
    This feeds into the whole idea of the library as an evolving space, offering things to the community which the community will value, irrespective if they fall under the ‘literacy’ umbrella that is our primary purpose. I think mission creep can be a great thing in libraries!

Any more you can think of?

- thewikiman


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  • Ned Potter September 20, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    Thanks for your input on the future, this morning! Resultant blog post here – Skip to the end: library futures, now…

  • Lisa Hutchins September 20, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Thanks for the hat-tip :) Two contrasting food and drink policies I have come across recently, both of which seem to work well. The first was at Cambridge Central Library (public) which is a big, modern space where they seem very keen to innovate and now recognise that food and drink are an integral part of the experience of studying – in the way that WiFi is a given.

    The second is at the University of Bedfordshire (academic) where they have a vastly diverse multicultural and international community of students and their work cut out to successfully balance everyone’s needs. Their policy, I think, involves not having food and drink in the study areas – but close by is a more informal cafe-style area where people can sit around tables, be noisy, hold group discussions and consume whatever food and drink they like.

    Both of these policies seemed to me (as a visitor) to serve their respective institutions very well.

  • Mylee Joseph September 20, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Thanks for your input on the future, this morning! Resultant blog post here – Skip to the end: library futures, now…

  • thewikiman September 20, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Yep, I agree they both sound good – different ways of satisfying the needs of the user. And to think it’s brought neither library to their knees! Extraordinary. :)

  • Nicola Franklin September 20, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    Allmost all of these suggestions so far (which I agree are all likely/needed, by the way) are focused on ‘the library’ as a space, rather than on ‘the librarian’ as a service provider. I think that the ‘place/building’ part of what a library is will decrease in importance, as electronic access increases, and wonder what changes will be demanded by users of the library staff in that situation?

  • Tracy Thompson-Przylucki September 20, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    Mylee’s DIY broadcasting idea led me to thinking of a library space devoted to facilitating collaboration/communication efforts that require more technological expertise and equipment than most library users would have access to. High-end video-conferencing set up, etc. The library would provide facility, equipment and support. This brings in Nicola’s point regarding library staff, service and skills.

  • thewikiman September 20, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    Nicola, you make an excellent point.

    I think Tracy is right in that part of what they’ll expect is for us to have expertise that help things happen. We’ll help facilitate stuff, as well as providing our own services – such as helping people video-conference, for example.

    My own view of what we should be doing (as opposed to what we actually will do) is that we should be providing support across all the different literacies, basically. Of course we’ll help people find information, but we should also be the go-to people for those who want help with digital literacy, technological literacy, all that stuff. Navigating privacy issues online, or interacting via social networks, or whatever new literacies emerge.

  • Ned Potter September 20, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    The future of libraries – if we're going to do all this stuff eventually, why not just do it now already?

  • Carolyn Sosnowski September 20, 2011 at 3:04 PM

    The future of libraries – if we're going to do all this stuff eventually, why not just do it now already?

  • Jennifer Lau-Bond (@jlaubond) September 20, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    YES!! RT @theREALwikiman: The future of libraries – why not just do it now already?

  • Fabiola September 20, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    The future of libraries – if we're going to do all this stuff eventually, why not just do it now already?

  • Sarah Stamford September 20, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    [From academic librarian perspective]. While it’s necessary for librarians to be innovative, we have to ensure that we take our institutions, especially our paymasters, with us, so we have to get the balance right between introducing welcome new processes and appearing to have fallen out of one’s pram (and costing money). The key thing surely is to make sure changes are helpful to users, are properly risk assessed and evidenced, and rejected if they don’t work. I can think of several examples where someone’s “bright idea” was implemented without proper analysis or evaluation, and criticism was ignored. Re loan periods – there is one library in Cambridge which permits unlimited numbers of loans for as long as the student is an undergraduate. They lose books, often for years on end. Here I was asked by our students to shorten the loan periods and keep fines because they wanted a fair system and more chance of books being kept in circulation. However, another library has a system of no fines but you can’t borrow more unless the rest are in date. Also we ban food and drink – insufficient staff to clear up the mess. Student who upset can of coke into her laptop last year appreciated why.

  • thewikiman September 20, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    Sarah, I both agree and disagree with you…

    Completely agree that bringing our paymasters along with us is essential. Whether that’s by getting them onside prior to implementing things, or proving how succesful something we’ve already implented really is (in language they understand and identify with), we definitely have to get them onside.

    I also agree that stuff should go if it doesn’t work, and that it should be investigated thoroughly – although we already spend far too much time thinking and not enough time doing as it is, so I’m a bit worried about endless risk assessment and no action.

    Loan periods, I think that idea suits public libraries a lot better than academic ones, certainly.

    Where I disagree with you, is the coke example. This is typical of library-thinking – something bad happened once, and not within the last 10 months even, so that’s held up as an example of why not to do something. And I doubt the student did appreciate it – I bet she was concerned about her laptop, not where the spillage had happened and whether or not there were policies to limit the impact of her own clumsiness. People spill stuff on laptops fairly regularly, whether this occurs within the walls of a library or not. This occurence should not be enough to hold back progress if people want this progress!

    We need to look at over-all gains to help our industry, even if that upsets some people. As I’ve written before, I think it’s time for more bravery, and less citing of examples of the one time when caution was rewarded…

  • Jill September 20, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    Suddenly the no fines method makes sense. I’ve only heard it presented that there are no overdue fines and patrons still check out as much as they want. My fairness loving heart just doesn’t understand how this benefits the majority. But to prevent further check-outs until items are returned; I could support this, especially with the special-section idea.

    As for phones, yes, let people use them. If we allow study groups and active children, why would we object to a quiet phone conversation? Staff listen to radios and carry on full volume conversation and still tell patrons they can’t use their cell phones (with no distinction between texting and talking). It’s not fair; I want it to change.

  • Ned Potter September 21, 2011 at 10:05 AM

    Some interesting comments on: Skip to the end! Library futures, now. What will we do eventually that we could do now?

  • thewikiman September 21, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    Yeah I agree Jill, people hate to see one rule for them and another for the staff, and that stuff really harms the image of the library (and libraries generally)…

  • Nicola Franklin September 21, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    Ned – interesting point about info, digital, etc literacy. In some areas of the profession, librarians are already teaching info literacy (eg law librarians in academia and commercial firms teach trainee solicitors information literacy, and in many other areas of the corporate world where ‘users’ are expected to do their own information searching using subscription databases available on their desktop information professionals train other staff in research techniques, if not in information literacy per se).

    However in other areas, non-information people are ‘reinventing the wheel’ to train staff in their professions in information literacy. For example the Royal College of Nursing recently published an information literacy toolkit without reference to CILIP (they used a UNESCO definition of information literacy as their basis) (hat-tip to Natasha for sharing this information).

    It would be good if we could promote information professionals’ expertise in this area more widely, so CILIP or other library & information groups were the ‘go to’ people for anyone interested in information or digital literacy.

  • thewikiman September 21, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    Yeah I’d agree – that’s what the Libraries and Transliteracy group in the US are trying to do, to some extent. Transliteracy is a term that has come from outside libraries, but they’re trying to position libraries as the ‘go to’ people in that particular narrative (and ensure that we as librarians are equipped to help people in all these areas).

    There’s a lot of fuss about the name and about transliteracy as a concept, but the idea of trying to help our users navigate successfully through the modern world on all the new platforms as well as the old ones, is absolutely sound.

    We do a LOT of into lit in the academic sector, but sometimes (well, all the time) I feel like that means we might be neglecting other areas, other literacies. Am trying to change that in my own institution.

  • Ned Potter September 21, 2011 at 7:13 PM

    Last plug for: The future of libraries – if we're going to do all this stuff eventually, why not just do it now?

  • erin September 23, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    The majority of the libraries I have used and/or worked at in the US already implement some of these ideas. Using the library for other purposes (clases and performances especially) and Sunday opening hours were quite common. Surely many of these ‘ground-breaking’ ideas have been implemented somewhere in the world, where they have proved to enhance the library rather than destabilize it?

  • thewikiman September 23, 2011 at 11:07 AM

    Hmm, not sure I like the sarcastic inverted commas there, no one has said any of these ideas are ground-breaking, they’re just things we’re going to end up doing so we may as well do them now.

    But I agree there’ll be use-cases for all of these somewhere in the world, which could be the basis of making a case for implementing them elsewhere.

  • Ina September 25, 2011 at 12:13 AM

    Maybe libraries as a space will give up their “no bags, no rucksacks policies”. If there is a book security system, this wouldn’t make much sense any longer.

  • thewikiman September 25, 2011 at 10:52 AM

    Wow, do libraries still have this rule then? I had no idea – definitely agree we should get rid of that.

  • Jana September 25, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    How lucky you are! ;-)
    When talking about academic libraries, there is more often than not a no drinks, no food, no bags, no jackets, no phone, no loud talking policy. Also, sometimes you have to show what materials you are bringing with you to the library.
    But a silent revolution has already begun. Patrons request things and librarians emerge who understand the need to keep your brain in a fluid surrounding so they are allowing water bottles IN THE LIBRARY!

  • EBSCO UK (@EBSCOUK) September 30, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    The progression of the library – what does the future hold?

  • Mijmeringen | Fabje rennt November 17, 2011 at 5:52 PM

    [...] zien aankomen dat we het een of ander voorgoed moeten verwerpen, dan kunnen we dat beter NU doen. ( Ned Potter schreef hier een overtuigende blogpost [...]

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