For me, the Public Library Association (PLA) Conference—held every two years—is the single most important event for gauging where public libraries are headed. And this month’s event, held in Indianapolis, Ind. (March 11-15), didn’t disappoint.

It’s always easy to find the hot-button issues at PLA: just scan the convention halls for the gaggles of grumpy librarians milling outside a conference room door, shut out of an overcrowded session. For me, that’s how the conference usually unfolds—it is basically three days of scrambling from session to session to hear about innovations in library services and programs; getting the nuts and bolts on how they were created and how they are being delivered; and then reflecting on and discussing what might resonate back home in my community.

I kicked off the 2014 PLA by participating as a panelist at a great breakfast session, sponsored by Rowman & Littlefield and Publishers Weekly, with 100 library directors and managers from across the country. The discussion began with a presentation by Julie Todaro, dean of Library Services at Austin (Tex.) Community College; her new book, Library Management for the Digital Age: A New Paradigm, will come out from R&L in time for ALA in June. Then Brooklyn Public Library’s Charlene Rue and I jumped in, for a lively q&a.

Todaro’s talk nicely hit on several themes that ended up dominating the conference (check the online version of this story for a link to her presentation). A big one was the necessity for librarians to focus on building strong, deep relationships with other community groups and organizations. To me, the importance of this cannot be overstated: librarians are always happy to talk about the amount of outreach they do, and partnerships they’ve developed; indeed, there were several programs at PLA focused on these themes.


So what resonated for me at PLA? There was a noticeable buzz at the show around “embedded” librarians. Embedded librarians aren’t new in the academic library world, where librarians may participate in a traditional or online courses—for instance, helping freshman navigate research as part of their first-year experience—or work closely with an academic department or a group of researchers. But it’s a whole new wrinkle for public libraries, where the job of looking outside the building is traditionally the director’s role, leaving everyone else to staff the reference desk.

In a presentation titled “Do You Know Where Your Librarian Is?,” a group of California librarians described their embedded experiences, working within the city council, veterans groups, and arts organizations. Being embedded, it turns out, requires a lot more than showing up at an organization with a few pamphlets and talking about the library’s programs and services. It’s about becoming so closely involved in another organization that you can assess its needs and work together to find solutions. It shifts the librarian from being a service player to a team player, a part of the community fabric.

So, what do library directors need to do to help successfully embed librarians? Provide their staff with both guidance and autonomy, and understand that with more librarians out of the building, there will be fewer staff members at public service points, and plan accordingly.

Another theme touted by Todaro during her talk that resonated throughout the conference was the need for public librarians to identify as educators, to view our libraries as learning institutions, and to capture educational outcomes to bolster these claims.

Traditionally, libraries have been demur in promoting their educational role, at least when it comes to adults. Presentations at PLA covered the “learner at the center,” or personalized learning; hyperlinked learning experiences, including the somewhat controversial rise of MOOCs; and support for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning.

When it came to libraries and learning, a program by the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) generated the most talk at the conference. In January, LAPL announced that it will offer full high school diplomas (not GEDs) through a partnership with Gale Cengage Learning.

The Gale product—Career Online High School—costs roughly $1,000 per student and LAPL had purchased 150 “scholarships.” To have a public library facilitate students getting a degree is a real game changer, even if—as most directors were quick to acknowledge—the model hardly seems scalable. Still, LAPL’s leap left many wondering how they could support something similar.


Recent publisher data showing consumer sales of e-books flattening. But, publishers are posting some strong numbers on the library side, with library systems like Cuyahoga County (Ohio) showing 40% growth in the past year.

In a session titled “Public Libraries in the Marketplace,” Overdrive president and CEO Steve Potash was as bullish as ever, arguing that the competitive nature of the marketplace will continue to increase library content while also easing pricing concerns. “When I am asked, ‘How do I build market share?’ I say, ‘Drop your prices,’ ” Potash said. “Competitive pricing and liberal access increase market share.”

Potash cited Lonely Planet as one publisher that understands how to work with libraries, and that now dominates library travel holdings. Overdrive, meanwhile, created its own buzz by announcing that it is working with indie and self-publishing service provider Smashwords to make the latter’s huge catalogue of authors available to libraries.

Smashwords made headlines back in 2013 when it sold 10,000 titles to Douglas County Libraries (Colo.). Overdrive’s program is expected to go live in the second quarter of 2014, with prices ranging from $1.99 to $4.50 per title. Overdrive reports that it is evaluating options for simplifying selection, including lists.

But the big trend that interested me, as a library director, is digital content finally pushing beyond databases and e-books. Every library director I met who was offering downloadable or streaming video—whether Midwest Tape’s Hoopla, RBdigital’s IndieFlix, or both—was unabashedly enthusiastic, no matter the demographics of his or her community. There was excitement from those who had acquired RBdigital’s Zinio, the platform for reading full-color, popular, digital magazines (with competition coming from EBSCO’s Flipster in the next few months). Reports suggest that these products are easy to use and seem to sell themselves.

The big question for me leaving Indianapolis was, how much money can I carve out of my acquisition budget in my next fiscal year for these products—and what gets cut to free up that money?

Who’s Your Maker?

Conference goers looking for fun and play needed only attend one of the standing room only makerspace sessions. But most of the audiences seemed to be there out of curiosity and not enthusiasm.

“I’m just trying to understand what all this has to do with libraries,” said one young librarian sitting next to me, voicing what many were likely thinking.

In one session, a group of Illinois librarians described circulating “makerboxes” among libraries—easily transportable and scalable boxes that contained high-tech and low-tech tools for supporting maker programs. The boxes held items like circuit boards; Squishy Circuits, which allow kids to explore electronics using Play-Doh; and Arduino, an open-source microcontroller board used to develop interactive objects—like the Lilypad, a button with blinking lights that can be sewn into clothing. Other “makerboxes” were more craft oriented, with sewing machines and fabrics.

Presenters at another “maker” session emphasized the importance of librarians connecting with their communities to help develop the direction of their maker activities. The Madison (Wis.) Public Library, for example, tapped in to the town’s lively artist community to give a visual-arts focus to the library’s maker activities.

“The last thing you want to do,” said Chattanooga (Tenn.) Public Library’s Nate Hill, “is go buy a 3-D printer and think you will have a makerspace.”

Here’s My Take:

Community engagement, participatory learning, support for STEM learning, resource sharing—it’s hard to see what maker activities don’t have to do with libraries. My bet is that by PLA 2016, maker activities will be so commonplace that no one will be asking why, but plenty of people will be showing how.

In fact, here’s a program idea for the next conference: an exposition of maker projects, allowing plenty of hands-on fun and the opportunity to bring home your own LED wristband.