I have been a librarian for over 15 years, and not a year has gone by without a discussion about “the future of libraries” in the profession. Much of the conversation has been dominated by library futurists, thought leaders, and visionaries, with little regard to the actual wants and needs of the communities and stakeholders that libraries serve. As the most recent discussion swirled around the creation of the American Library Association‘s Center for the Future of Libraries, and the companion Summit on the Future of Libraries that took place last weekend, it became evident that the “usual suspects” were once again prognosticating on the future of libraries with little input from those we serve both in the profession and in our institutions every day.
At first, I tweeted that I was “staying out of “future of the library” debates on social media, not because I don’t care about libraries, but out of a dislike for futurists”, but I quickly got pulled into the online debate about the Summit and who was and was not invited. Much of the discussion inside the Summit was the stuff that many of us in the profession have heard time and time again, increased technology, huge social upheaval, and the future irrelevance of libraries in the lives of most people. This type of nihilistic and self-serving (many of the participants in the Summit were from the realm of IT and technology) prognostication is worthless without gauging the true wants and needs of our users. Additionally, I found it classist and paternalistic to be discussing the future of libraries with little or no input from the communities that we serve.
As I was kvetching about this later to my partner, the marketing professor, he asked me “So what do you think is the future of libraries?” Without batting an eye, I said, “The future of libraries is identifying the wants and needs of our communities and stakeholders and meeting them.” In other words, adopting a market orientation, a “business approach or philosophy that focuses on identifying and meeting the stated or hidden needs or wants of customers.” When organizations adopt a market orientation, they seek to identify what customers/clients/stakeholders/users want and need first and then develop products and services to meet these needs. Indeed, many libraries have always done this and will continue to do so in the future, and have been quite successful during the myriad of changes in the profession in the last 50 years, but I also know that the number of libraries who have not adopted a market orientation is much higher, and these libraries continue to struggle.
Instead of listening to publishers, vendors, futurists, thought leaders, or anyone else paid to give opinions on the future of libraries, we need to identify what our communities and stakeholders want the future of libraries to look like, and then make this a reality for them. This means that libraries and librarians will need to reach out to communities, research their wants and needs, and truly listen to what we are being told. This means that we may need to let go of old assumptions, or new ones, and be flexible enough to change as the wants and needs of the communities we serve change. This means that we need to assess what we are doing right and keep it, and figure out what we are doing wrong, and change it. If we can develop the tools of market orientation to do this, I think the future of libraries will be bright indeed.