Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

I was recently asked about the experience of future students walking into an academic library. At first, all I could think about was a building where I used to work that was completed in the early 90s but that was outmoded by the late 90s. The rise of mobile devices and the need for power outlets everywhere made a practically brand new building seem dated. That’s just one major change that completely altered the experience in a library. That kind of upheaval can and will happen again, so I know I can't specifically describe the academic library of the future. And I'm not the only one... I read an article last week that flat out stated: “The array of forces that impact upon the library’s operating environment makes any modelling of transformation during the coming years an almost impossible task.” That was written by someone at Carnegie Mellon University - if someone at a school that size doesn't feel up to predicting the future in a meaningful way, how could I?

So then... what are we to do? I mean, other than designing flexible spaces and hiring flexible people...? How can we be ready for the future? Here's how: we need to concentrate on the people. We need to work on making members of our community feel welcome in the library. And I mean all members. I keep thinking about something Verna Myers said at ACRL: "Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance." And that feeling of being asked to dance, of truly belonging, should be our goal for the people who walk through the doors of our libraries.

So, how do we do this? How do we make members of our community, especially our students, feel like they belong in the library? We do it by meeting their needs. And by treating them as whole people, not just academic entities. We've already got them academically. Accommodating and supporting academic needs is the main mission of an academic library. Especially at small, liberal arts colleges like mine. We do course reserves, information literacy, shape our collections to support the research and curricular needs of our parent institutions. But that's just the beginning.

We also need to accommodate the social needs of our community. Yes, most (if not all) of us are giving our students places where they can talk or be quiet, as they choose, but I’d like to see it go further. It’s great to do a display for African American History Month or Women’s History Month, but we shouldn’t restrict it to just those months. Making sure to include writers of color in all displays, not just in February. Including nonbinary authors and women and beyond. We should spend time making sure visual branding is representative as well. We want students to have a sense of ownership of the space, and so partnering with them will be crucial. Making sure they see themselves reflected is crucial.

This is a place where some academics might balk, but providing ways to relax, beyond comfortable chairs, should also be part of our mission. As I said above, our students are whole people and we need to support the whole person. From popular reading materials to board and video games to fun activities sponsored by the library. Therapy dogs and gaming nights and arts &crafts and movie nights might seem on the surface like things only public libraries should be doing, but if we want our students to feel welcome and supported as whole people, we need to do these as well. Even if there’s a public library in town, they aren’t always open nearly as late as we are. Further, even if the public library is right off campus, students - particularly those who aren’t from the local area - aren’t always going to feel comfortable going off campus. Besides, letting our students see us in a social light will help us build the relationship so students will feel more comfortable coming to us for academic help.

It's all well and good - and a bit fun, I have to admit - to think about how technology will shape the future of libraries. Will we be more Starfleet Academy or more Johnny Mnemonic? Gattaca or Jetsons? But, no matter which direction the tech takes us, we will be fine if we remember to focus on the people.

What do you think?

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