We librarians have all heard so, so many pronouncements on the future of libraries—working groups, task forces, think tanks, seminars, research projects, demonstrations, experiments, surveys, and pilots, from people and organizations within the library community and without, all trying to suggest or promote or force or prevent some aspect of what libraries will or could or should be. It’s dizzying, and one can be forgiven for tuning out and just plowing ahead with the next 10 things on the daily to-do/keep-the-doors-open list.

Fair enough. I promise, you can do precisely that when you finish reading this column. But I spent a day looking to the future at last month’s ALA Midwinter conference in January in Seattle, where I heard a number of valuable perspectives about the future of libraries worth sharing.

It's Good to Be a Little Wacky

My day began, appropriately, with a meeting of the advisory committee for ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries, heroically run by the inestimable Miguel Figueroa, who almost singlehandedly keeps the whole enterprise moving along. You probably know the Center for its highly successful and well-attended Symposium at Midwinter, and perhaps also from the 'trends collection' and its accompanying email update, which if you’re not subscribed to, you totally should be—it’s invaluable.

It’s also, to be honest, a little wacky. Which is part of why I’m so partial to it. It’d be easy to think the Center should stick to tracking trends in publishing, technology, or society and demographics—and, certainly, that stuff is there. But it comes alongside other less obviously library-related issues like basic income, design thinking, fandom, gamification, resilience, the sharing economy, and my personal favorite “fast casual dining.”

Fast casual dining? That may seem like a weird trend for librarians to keep up with—until you dig in. In fact, as the Center observes, trends in fast casual dining are: “reflective of changing consumer values, including desires for more social and aspirational experiences…and libraries that emphasize not only the affordability and value of libraries, but also the social and experiential value of library programs and services, might be able to capitalize on the popularity of the fast casual concept.”

Miguel has been carefully monitoring and sharing trends like these with librarians for some time now. But at this year’s ALA Midwinter, he pointed out that many libraries are actually doing things that connect to such broader consumer trends without necessarily being aware of it. For me, that was an "Aha!" moment. Maybe paying closer attention to wider trends and thinking more purposefully about the decisions we make might be beneficial? Good to know.

Trends in Library Leadership

From there, I went to what I knew was going to be a popular session: leadership for the future of libraries. Full disclosure: the session was put together and moderated by Harry Bruce, a dear friend and my former dean, and populated by people with connections to the iSchool at the University of Washington, where I teach.

The session moved at a surprisingly brisk pace. And I was struck not only by what was being said, but what was not said—there was no grand, exalted vision for the future of libraries we so often hear; no shiny jumpsuits, or hovercrafts. There were just talented leaders, talking about the work. So, basically, I just started scribbling, as is my wont, trying to wrap my head around all of this great, if disparate stuff.

Trying to summarize so many pithy observations would be more or less a fool’s errand. So here are a few snapshots:

Susan Hildreth (everybody knows Susan, right?): Susan spoke of the importance of people (human capital), place (physical and virtual) and platforms (as a venue for community learning and connectivity) and how leadership comes through humility, authenticity, prudent risk-taking, and keeping a sense of humor.

Cindy Aden (Washington State Librarian): Leadership is contextual, mindful, collaborative, compassionate, patient, and respectful. It's about doing work that matters, in a fun, inclusive, safe, and inspiring way. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about leadership over the years, but rarely in such personal and heartfelt ways. I think many of us were moved by what Cindy had to say, and how she said it.

Brian Bannon (Commissioner & CEO of Chicago Public Library): Stay true to your core mission, the “true north,” as he calls it. But, interpret that mission with flexibility and adaptability.

There should be myriad futures in which libraries and librarians act as constructive forces for good.

Lisa Rosenblum (Director, King County Library System): Don’t be bored. It’s OK to get yelled at. Fear actually prepares you well for leadership. Honestly, I spent more time listening to Lisa than taking, notes so I know I missed about five other gems.

Marcellus Turner (Chief Librarian, Seattle Public Library): Leadership opportunities come sooner than you think. Be willing to poke the bear. To redefine what a library is, you have to be willing to dig the ditch you’ll die in (been there, done that!).

Rolf Hapel, recently of Dokk1 in Aarhus, Denmark, now the Distinguished Practitioner in Residence here at the University of Washington's iSchool: Our assets include our spaces, social infrastructure, agility, trust, values, our connectedness, technological sophistication, and our users. The library should be an intentional designer for an environment of knowledge creation. Ask yourself this: to which problems in society and your community is your library the answer?

In his remarks, Rolf used a phrase in that wound up thumbtacked to my brain: he characterized the library as a social constructor. Wow. His words keep ringing in my head, because they connect to something we talk about in my undergraduate informatics class: how design is a way of shaping the world. And if we conceive of libraries, and the people who work there, as social constructors, then librarians are a key part of designing, constructing, and shaping not just their libraries, but the communities they work in, and with.

When you look at it this way, there shouldn’t be some grand, exalted vision of the library's future—there should be lots of them. There should be myriad futures in which libraries and librarians act as constructive forces for good in their communities. And in today's world, seems to me we desperately needs as much of that as we can get.

PW contributor Joseph Janes is Associate Professor in the University of Washington Information School, and author of Library 2020: Today's Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow's Library and Documents That Changed the Way We Live, published by Rowman & Littlefield.