Today, there’s perhaps more interest than ever before in the future of libraries. I see this at my own library, the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, where we have begun a large-scale renovation that’s required us to close off most of our first floor. If I stand in my library lobby for five minutes, I end up fielding questions from patrons. Many are expected: What have you done with the new mysteries? Where are the computers? Who’s paying for this?
But other questions are more reflective. What sort of a library are you building when so much content is available digitally? Will there still be books? What about more space for meetings and workshops? Will food be available? The public, it turns out, is trying to figure out our future right along with us.
I admit, I’m no Marshall McLuhan. But as a library director, I try to track the changing environment libraries are living in, often through the weekly Read for Later newsletter from the American Library Association’s Center for the Future of Libraries. But I’m more keenly interested in the decisions my colleagues from across the country are making for their libraries right now—I’m most interested in what the next five years will bring, not the next 15.
Which is why I find reading grant announcements and applications so revealing. No one completes a grant application on a whim. Tedious and labor-intensive, grant applications are a response to real needs in one’s community, or within one’s profession. Grants are meant to address the future we want to create tomorrow.
And no one provides more grants to libraries than the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), through several grant programs, with awards ranging from $5,000 to $2 million. Though the IMLS provides priorities for each grant cycle—for example, building a national digital platform, or programs for learning in libraries—there is enough latitude to submit applications that, in the words of the IMLS, “will move library and archival services... forward.”
So what do the 80-plus library grants funded by the IMLS in 2016 tell us about the library’s role in the near future? I took a look, and broadly speaking, the applications tell us that libraries are actively addressing a wide range of challenges within their communities. And, long gone are the days when a library’s solution to a challenge would be to develop a collection of books and wait for people to discover it.
Not surprise, digital is a big area of support for IMLS. In 2016, over a third of IMLS grants went to digital library projects. But unlike in previous years, the 2016 grants didn’t necessarily support content creation, or even metadata. They mostly sought to improve the connection among existing tools, services, and content collections. Creating a national digital platform is a major stated priority for the IMLS. And we can expect more funding in the future that will seek to connect the various far-flung parts of our digital library infrastructure by knitting it together, and improving discoverability.
Education and learning is another key priority for libraries, and also for IMLS. On that front, the 2016 IMLS grants suggest that school librarians are eager to integrate maker activities into their communities through the school library. In Utah, for example, a junior high school and a public library are seeking to develop a program for rural, small-town public and school librarians, to teach them the skills required to initiate maker programming.
In Norman, Okla., a joint effort between the public schools and the University of Oklahoma is looking to design and test a “learning by making” program, which focuses on creative problem solving. Engaging more than 570 students over three years, that program seeks to transform the role of the school librarian in K–12 learning.
A number of projects seek to help refugees. Project Welcome, from the Mortenson Center at the University of Illinois and ALA, is a program to help libraries support the various organizations providing resettlement and integration services to refugees. In Hartford, Conn., young adult librarians are launching a three-year project for immigrant and refugee youth that focuses on language learning, digital literacy skills, leadership development, cultural competency, and social action.
In Azusa, Calif., the library is working on a Grassroots ESL (English as a Second Language) program, which will provide language instruction with partner organizations throughout the community, not just in a classroom. Similarly, the Free Library of Philadelphia is seeking to work with nine community partners to integrate the library into the broader systems of workforce development and adult education. The Denver Public Library, meanwhile, is developing programming for adults experiencing homelessness and poverty.
OCLC, is working on an interesting program to help small and rural communities reimagine and reconfigure their library spaces to support “participatory learning” and other programming. And in a low-income Brooklyn, N.Y, neighborhood, the library will pilot BKLYN Link, which will provide both free broadband access and a technology-based fellowship program for 18-to-24-year-olds, who will actually install and maintain the network.
But for me, the genius awards go to the Providence (R.I.) Public Library for its LibraryU project, and the Brooklyn Public Library for BKLYN Link.
LibraryU is a workforce development program will support 600 underserved teens, with learning opportunities, digital credentials, academic credit, exposure to work, and entry points into academic and career pathways. And in a low-income Brooklyn, N.Y, neighborhood, BKLYN Link, will provide both free broadband access and a technology-based fellowship program for 18-to-24-year-olds, who will actually install and maintain the network. This is what the public library reinvented looks like.
So, what’s not included in this years round of grants? If you ask public librarians what their greatest institutional challenge is, many would say it’s that library staff and leadership still do not reflect the communities they serve. Yet there is only one grant—and it’s for archival faculty—that addresses diversity.
Absent too is that old saw, information literacy—although other types of literacies (especially digital literacy) do pop up. Though several grants support UX (user experience), there’s also no research into our users and the roles that libraries play—or don’t play—in their lives. Have we given this research up to Pew and OCLC?
And with the exception of the open source e-reader, SimplyE, there is no mention of books and the experience of reading. In fact, in reviewing the 2016 grants you would hardly know that libraries are in the business of acquiring, sharing, and promoting discussion about books.
Is there really nothing left for us to learn to support the experience of reading? Is reading no longer an action we as librarians are supposed to value?
I applaud all the inventive ways librarians are seeking to expand their roles in the community, and the programs supported by the 2016 IMLS grants are truly laudable and innovative. But I’d also suggest that what libraries could use is a national reading platform that—like the IMLS’s goal of a national digital platform—would connect and support the myriad reading activities strewn across libraries, publishers, and literacy advocates.