Dec 272016

I have been doing a “Futures of Libraries” workshop for the last six years or so, and just found some of the materials from this year in my holiday cleanup of my home office.

My aim is to have people do some thinking not only about libraries and tech, but about the changes they have seen in their personal and professional lives in a 30 year timeframe. I try to spend a bit of time guiding people to remember what they were like 30 years ago, what the library looked like, what skills people needed then … to get an idea of the difference between today and the future that they are required to plan for in their libraries today. (Thirty years is a very modest timeframe, but seems to be the one that people can JUST handle without talking about teleporters and flying jetpacks).

This year I did workshops in Pretoria in South Africa (June) and in Donnybrook Western Australia (September). One location was the total unknown for me, the other was the hometown where I grew up for my first 18 years (in fact, in a building 200 metres from the house where I lived).  The South African group was mainly academic librarians, the Australian group mainly Library Technicians. My style is to try to guide the conversation so that the speculation and talking points come from the crowd, rather than me…then to ask questions so that they elaborate on ideas; or ask the group whether the possible similarities or themes I am seeing are correct.

Although the groups were very different, both groups believed that more technological skills are needed by everyone working in future libraries. Both groups had interesting discussions about how “interventionist” the future library should be with respect to client needs. Do we become “service concierges” in our physical space, greeting people as they walk in and guiding their every step, or do we focus on an online presence so very streamlined and attuned to the user experience that clients’ needs are met with them hardly knowing that we are there? (Are both possible?) Both groups also emphasised “people skills” – customer service, being able to connect not only with clients but with the wider community and other institutions.

Although we focus on the skills, services and requirements of the future library, I do an exercise at the end that throws a bit of a spanner in the works. Sometimes it helps clarify a vision more clearly when it is threatened or thrown off-kilter. Similar to the technique used in the Bookends Scenario research by the State Library of New South Wales, I had people work in groups where I handed them cards with scenarios that were outlandishly unlikely, but possible, futures. I had them describe how just one of these scenarios may affect the future needs of the library.

(I was fascinated by the response of one group in Africa that chose “Peak Oil” as a their possible future. Some parts of Africa are used to intermittent supplies of energy and to creating their own, localised, sustainable solutions. Looks like many libraries there would be far more prepared for this eventuality than the average Australian library).

The scenarios were all designed to remind us of the need to be nimble and flexible in our planning, by presenting terribly hyperbolic and unlikely futures. I apologise, in my flippant confidence, it looks like I actually got one right ….



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