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America’s Libraries in the 21st Century Breakout Session at 2008 Annual Conference

ALA members and OITP came together Saturday to continue the discussion about what America’s libraries will look like in the next 10, 20, 30, or 5(?) years. The breakout session kicked off OITP’s new Program on America’s Libraries in the 21st Century (AL21C), and welcomed a diverse set of speakers to share their visions and promote further discussion.

Vivian Pisano, committee chair and Chief of Information Technology at San Francisco Public Library, introduced OITP Director Alan Inouye and moderator Roger Levien, the new OITP Fellow and Principal at Strategy & Innovation Consulting. Dr. Levien put forth the importance of forming a partnership between OITP work and libraries and librarians on the ground. Pisano also introduced the panelists, including Joan Frye Williams, President of Joan Fry Williams Consulting, Stephen Abram, Vice President of Innovation at SirsiDynix, and José-Marie Griffiths, Dean and Professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

Joan Frye Williams offered three scenarios for the future of libraries. First, she suggested that libraries will transition to the “ideas business,” where traditional library commodities like books take on the role as the “connective synapses” that help users link ideas and connect with each other online. Second, she said that our relationships with the information object will become less important and our relationships with humans more important. Williams suggested that persons should be at the center for libraries, not as customers or patrons, but as members. Finally, she predicted that the library will further transition to a place to do stuff, not just a place to get stuff. The library will become a laboratory for community members to tinker, build, learn, communicate, and be entertained together. She looked to trends in wellness and health and suggested the library can be a lifelong venue for intellectual health.

Stephen Abram provoked the audience with a vision of libraries and the library profession 20 years in the future. He said that libraries must address some of the longstanding lags in innovation, efficiency, and user-centered service. For instance, he challenged librarians to step out from behind the anonymity of the reference desk, and advocated for librarians to use the communication tools of today’s connected users. Abram encouraged libraries to collaborate with each other and share programming ideas and materials. Finally, he pushed for stronger library leaders who hold accountable librarians and staff who are not meeting the requirements of the job in the 21st century.

José-Marie Griffiths also questioned whether the “future of libraries” should really be called “the future of librarians.” She said that while the collection is something that underpins library activity, the organization of those collections will continue to evolve, especially as those groups helping to organize information expands far beyond librarians. She echoed the sentiment that “library as place” will become increasingly important in every library sector. Finally, Griffiths advocated that librarians and supporters continue to promote libraries as drivers of community, education, and economic development.

David Lankes, OITP Fellow and Associate Professor at Syracuse University School of Information Studies, gave a rousing presentation on participatory librarianship. Dr. Lankes said that libraries are in a natural conversation with their users, and must engage proactively with them. The model puts users at the center, supporting learning as a collaborative activity and libraries as the facilitator of the conversation. Check out David’s great talk above, or visit his website for the slides, audio, and high quality video.

Stay tuned to District Dispatch for video from the AL21C breakout session, and check out coverage of the event the event at Library Journal.

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Jacob Roberts is the communications specialist for the ALA Washington Office.

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