I recently attended the American Library Association MidWinter Meeting where we learned about community engagement, social innovators, successful tools and programs libraries are using to expand their relevancy in the digital age of the 21st Century.

In addition to the ALA business meetings and large exhibit floor, there was a Symposium on the Future of Libraries, which spent three days exploring near-term trends sparking innovation in libraries today and longer-term trends that will help libraries adapt to the needs of their communities. 
I was fortunate to attend many of these sessions and get a glimpse into the creative world of today’s librarians and develop an understanding of how they are positioning their libraries to best support the unique communities they serve. 
There were 5 main takeaways from the symposium, which I feel are applicable to our library work and more broadly, all our work with community engagement and lifelong learning: 

  • Supporting community aspirations

  • Stop asking the community what they want of their library, start asking what the community aspires to be. This switch in thinking, asking not only library users, but calling or surveying at community events will pull information from a wider and more relevant audience. Once the aspirations of the community are identified, the library can rethink the services they provide and target resources to support the achievement of these aspirations.

  • Community partnerships

  • Libraries are finding new ways to engage with communities' resources to strengthen the resources and service population for programs. Branding a partnership, cross promoting events, and pooling resources and budgets, can allow for greater community impact. Partnerships can bring a higher level of clout or legitimacy to programs that may otherwise be discounted. An important piece to these partnerships is not just bringing partners into the library but getting the librarians out to partner locations and events.

  • Mobile librarians

  • Rethinking the librarian’s desk: the circulation or reference desk, behind which the librarian typically sits hidden behind a monitor waiting for your questions. This is more often than not a desk that allows the librarian to sit and view the patrons but is also difficult for them to get out from behind to help the patrons. In the large Cincinnati and Hamilton County library system, they have opened three desk-less branches and eliminated desks for some departments in their main library. This model frees up space once devoted to a large piece of furniture and brings the librarian out to the patrons full time. They report that this change took some adjustment for established librarians, but was embrace readily by those new to the industry.The change comes as a response to provide better service to library visitors, not as a way to cut staff, proven by the lack of changes in staffing levels across libraries that have adopted this new method. One critical factor for this model to excel is having uninterrupted, high quality WiFi available.

  • Digital Equity

  • Libraries can provide a quality connection to the internet, teach skills to use it, and increase access to high quality content. Quality is the key term. Tony Marx, president of The New York Public Library, likened our current position in the digital age to the introduction of the Guttenberg press, which was originally used to print indulgences, then moved on to print the bible and other books, which expanded access to knowledge and led to the age of enlightenment. Helping guide us through quality content in an age overrun with digital garbage is a key role for the future librarian. 
    Librarians can take on the role of the navigator at an individualized level. Unlike a school, the library doesn’t have a curriculum and doesn't dictate how to use the information. Their role can ensure everyone who comes to the library can find what they need to move to their next level.

  • Differing models in Academic Libraries

  • Each library serves a unique community. Some academic libraries are attempting to foment more casual interactions between faculty and students by pulling faculty members into the building. In these institutions, faculty members are asked about space needs that are not currently offered in their academic buildings. Others are looking to support student success within the library and create a one stop service center that draws more students in and keeps them longer. In counterpoint, some academic libraries see the library as “the place for students to get work done.” These librarians really don’t care about getting faculty into the building. 
    Even with these differences, the librarians seem to agree that in the digital age their special collections are even more relevant. The focus is on outreach and education to faculty on these primary source collections so that they can encourage students to search out primary sources for their research.