I often talk about the need for any industry to know its core business, citing examples of major companies that floundered because they failed that basic test. Kodak tanked because it fixated on film and cameras rather than on helping people make and share memories…so smart phones + online platforms like Instagram and Flickr ate their lunch. Blockbuster focused on how to rent videos, rather than on how to share content, now they’re dead while I subscribe to Netflix.
This article from last week’s edition of Dispatches: Breaking Out of the Library Mold, in Boston and Beyond caught my interest because it describes the process of libraries (re)discovering their “core business.” If you asked someone, a decade ago, to describe what libraries do, the answer would probably be “they lend books.” Now that simple statement is being both deconstructed and expanded.
“They lend…” As the article notes, libraries are expanding the range of things they share: at the Chicago Public Library's Maker Lab, access to 3-D printers, laser cutters and milling machines. At the Lopez Island Library in Washington State, musical instruments. At the Library Farm in Upstate New York, "plots of land on which patrons can learn organic growing practices.”
And nowadays “books” are only one of many ways that people access information. Digital content expands the scope of a library’s “shelves,” and libraries are exploring the right balance, for their communities, between digital and print. Many people turn to the library as their only portal to the internet, an essential resource for finding a job or navigating the government regulatory or legal system. The article quotes library futurist Joe Murphy as noting “When I started out in the ’70s, you would walk up to the reference desk and ask a question and I would find an answer. Today it’s the opposite. People turn to librarians to help them sift through the 10 million answers they find on the Internet. We’re more like navigators.”
Other ways cited by the article that libraries are reshaping themselves to fill the needs of new audiences:
- Becoming more convivial, offering comfy seating spaces, and welcoming food and drink
- Supporting people’s desire to be creators, as well as consumers, of information
- Rethinking their traditional architecture, and creating more flexible, outwardly-focused spaces
Does all this sound a teeny bit familiar? The balance between physical and digital content; reshaping public space to be more welcoming; accommodating audience desire to do as well as view; expanding roles from expert to facilitator. As museums deconstruct and expand their traditional missions to “collect, preserve, interpret” how do you see them changing to fit the world?