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Confronting the Future Goes Global

Roger Levien and Javier Celaya
Roger Levien and Javier Celaya at the Sixth Spanish Public Libraries Congress, Burgos, Spain

At the heart of the ALA Program on America’s Libraries for the 21st Century (also known as the “Future of Libraries”), are the policy briefs and perspectives reports produced and disseminated by the Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP). Our most recent policy brief Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library, released in 2011, has had broad and continuing impact, both within the United States and internationally.

In October 2012, Dr. Roger Levien, author of Confronting the Future and an ALA OITP Fellow from 2008 to 2011, was the keynote speaker at the Sixth Spanish Public Libraries Congress. In conjunction with this congress, the policy brief was translated into Spanish (pdf) by Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports. The Spanish invitation was Dr. Levien’s most recent of his engagements to discuss the policy brief and his continuing work on the future of the public library. Dr. Levien provides the following report on some of his activities related to Confronting the Future.

Impact of Confronting the Future

Roger E. Levien

Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public LibraryI wrote Confronting the Future from the perspective of a strategist whose experience lay with issues of technology-driven change in both the public and private sectors, but who had not had prior engagement with libraries. The policy brief takes an agnostic view, laying out the options before libraries, but does not recommend a specific course for libraries to follow.

After the publication of the brief and the completion of my term as an ALA OITP Fellow, two things happened. First, I began to receive invitations to speak before library groups who are concerned about the uncertain future they confront. Second, I continued to think about the revolutionary changes that libraries are facing and came to the conclusion that there is a general direction that libraries must follow if they are to survive. As a result, the presentation that I have given in response to those invitations has gone beyond the agnosticism of the policy brief. It prescribes a direction for re-inventing the library so that it can offer an extended and rebalanced mix of services to meet its community’s evolving needs, which are being reshaped by the technology revolution, the disintegrating media landscape, and powerful economic and cultural transformations.

My goal has been to challenge libraries and those public and private agencies that fund and guide them to invest in new services that address developing needs while determining which traditional roles can be reduced.

I have presented my prescription in several different venues. I spoke to the New York Library Trustees annual meeting and the Nassau County (N.Y) Library System (both board members and librarians). On both occasions the feedback was positive. I have also participated in two sessions, one invited and one open, to help the Lewes (Del.) Public Library plan its new building to have the flexibility to be able to address both the known current needs and the unknown future needs of the community. I plan to continue to present my views for consideration and refinement by other libraries and organizations concerned with meeting the challenges of the coming decades of the twenty-first century.

Roger Levien in Madrid
Roger Levien in Lewes, DE. Photo: Dennis Forney

In October I gave the keynote address to the Sixth Spanish Public Libraries Congress, which met jointly with Europeana, a Europe-wide Internet service that serves as an access point to more than 23 million digitized cultural artifacts held in over 2200 institutions from 34 countries across Europe. The congress, organized by the Subdirectorate General for Libraries Coordination of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, was held at a newly opened state-of-the-art conference center in Burgos, Spain. The hundreds of attendees came not only from throughout Spain, but also from other European countries and North America. At the conclusion of my address, Javier Celaya, CEO of, and I held an on-stage dialog during which we also responded to some of the many questions tweeted by members of the audience. The concluding document of the Congress — Public Libraries, Individual Memory, Global Heritage — reflects the recommendations I made in my address. It asserts that: “Librarians attitude … to reinvent themselves will result in a transformation of libraries, instead of their disappearance.”

Taking part in the Spanish conference (with the aid of simultaneous interpretation) was informative and encouraging. Although there is severe economic stress in Spain and several of the other countries represented at the congress, their public libraries are still innovating and adapting to the digital age. I was especially impressed by the work going on in Greece and in Spain.  In Greece, the nationwide Future Library program, funded by the Niarchos Foundation, is recording the current state of public and municipal libraries and proposing specific actions to upgrade their services and position within the community. Also in Greece is Magic Boxes, a project with an innovative approach to children’s libraries, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. A number of interesting and valuable projects of digitization, extensive use of social media, and development of virtual libraries that are underway in Spain were described at the Congress. There were also presentations about the Mexican and the Finnish digital libraries.

I came away from the congress with a strong appreciation for the innovative activities of libraries throughout Spain and, more generally, Europe; and an even stronger belief that we in America would benefit from a far closer association with European libraries. As a step in that direction, I suggest that the ALA encourage greater participation by libraries and librarians from outside the U.S. in ALA conferences and meetings.

On the basis of these experiences and the reactions of my audiences, both here and abroad, I am ever more confident that through a process of continuous re-invention, public libraries worldwide will be able to confront the future with confidence and thrive in the coming decades of this century.

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Alan Inouye

Alan S. Inouye is the director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy. Previously, he was the coordinator of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President and a study director at the National Academy of Sciences. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

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