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VLA Keynote: Library of the Future

May - 25 - 2010
Nicole C. Engard

This year’s VLA (Vermont Library Association) Conference had the theme of ‘Where tradition meets transformation.’ That’s why they asked Norma Blake and Peggy Cadigan from NJ libraries to give the keynote – because they were instrumental in a ton of transformations!! They titled their talk ‘Library of the future: The indispensable library.’

The digital native is online everyday by age 8 – he is your customer. That said, our populations are very diverse and our patrons are looking for a place of welcome and transformation. NJ is the most diverse state in the nation in terms of different ethnic groups. Vermont however is the ‘whitest’ state in the nation according to census data.

When it comes to age diversity, 1 in 4 Americans is a baby boomer – our senior population is going to grow significantly meaning we not only have to cater to the needs of digital natives, but also other age groups.

It wasn’t that long ago that we thought we had a monopoly on information – but we have entered an age of ubiquitous information – Google, iPhone, Wifi – you no longer have to wait for the library doors to open. So, what do we have to offer?

In general we see our constituents as people we’re rescuing – but in fact they see themselves as guests or people that need to be served. Patrons were asked what they wanted to be called and they said ‘it’s our library, we want to be called members.’ We are no longer the collectors and distributors of information. Now we need to be providers of experience, we need to inspire, collaborate with and teach our members.

People are looking for the Barnes & Noble experience – the comfy chairs and the late hours!

Two books recommended by Norma – A complaint is a gift by Janelle Barlow, Claus Moller, and Tony Hsieh & Satisfied customers tell three friends, angry customers tell 3,000 by Pete Blackshaw. At her library Norma kept a notebook behind the desk and kept track of all of the times they said no to patrons and then went back to see how they could change those yeses to no.

In NJ they went to the casinos and asked for free customer service training. Companies that have good customer service will often offer these workshops to community members!! What they learned at the casino was that it cost 5 to 6 times more to attract a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. When asked why they weren’t coming back to the casino the majority of people said it was because of the service they received. Libraries are not so different from casinos in this respect. There are plenty of other places to get information and in Atlantic City there are plenty of other casinos to choose from.

In addition to good service, patrons want convenient access to services. Peggy showed us the ‘Bokomaten‘ it’s a machine that holds 400 paperbacks and you basically go up to the machine and borrow your books from it. There was also a drive through beer distributor that doubled as a car wash. And finally a drive up rabies clinic for you pet.

What does this all mean to us? We need space that is able to inspire delight, that is comfortable, welcoming and green. You need to find ways to make people want to stay longer (I’d add here that for me that means I need a quiet floor – or quiet area – I don’t want kids running around and making noise when I’m in the library).

Peggy gave us some examples from the Topeka Shawnee library. They have made some simple changes like adding signs above the shelves that explain the materials – so there is a Health section – books in it are organized by Dewey still, but the labels make it look like a bookstore and are easier for non-librarians to find things. In NJ, Mount Laurel doubled their circulation after doing a simple renovation for around $10,000 (if I understood correctly).

Some other ideas for partnerships that Norma gave:

  • Put all community events on your library site instead of just library events
  • There are grants you can apply for to educate your community members about gangs and gang violence
  • In TX librarians are trained as 911 operators
  • European librarians are ahead of us in a lot of ways, but one of these ways is the information commons.
  • The library can rent out spaces to community organizations like social services organizations to get people in the door
  • You can collect food for the local food bank. In NJ they did this at the NJLA conference, but I’ve also seen some libraries that will forgive fines for food donations!
  • In Denmark they started lending people – experts on topics to talk to patrons. So instead of just having books on roses, why not offer a expert on roses to talk to people and answer their questions
  • You can loan out things like gardening equipment, tools, and I’ve even visited in a library that had a collection of cake pans that they loaned out.

For years, librarians have been trying to get a place at the table – forget that – librarians should be the people who set the table! If you have an idea don’t expect someone else to get the ball rolling, jump in and start the project at the library.

Overall a very inspiring keynote and a neat surprise to see librarians from my area up in Vermont!


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