building the global library field

I spent the last several days in a room with the strategic advisor network of the global libraries program at the gates foundation. It’s exhilarating to have the time and the space to sit with the collective intelligence of a dozen or so library professionals who are managing global library associations, building the most innovative public libraries in the world, advancing scholarship and practice, developing local economies with the public libraries they lead or support. Exhilarating, honestly, feels like it doesn’t do any of this justice.

By the end of our time together, the group came up with three priority suggestions for the team on where to invest resources in order to “build the global library field” (in my own words):

- human capital and leadership networks

- measuring impact and communicating value

- shared solutions and infrastructure

Implicit in all of these was the notion of “articulating a vision for the future of libraries” and a strong emphasis on “community engagement” and “partnerships” in doing so.

I left the meeting with a renewed, and still profound, sense that this team is the best positioned organization in the world to advance the field globally. They’ll do it with their continued deep engagement with stakeholders (our group is just one small way they engage inside the field) and their commitment to working with others to get the job(s) done. I also felt extremely grateful for my time there. I am so lucky to know every individual in this group; and am changed myself by my interactions with them whenever we have the chance to meet and exchange. I also left the meeting feeling that there should be concerted, coordinated effort to articulate the future of libraries - in context with how content and learning is changing. It certainly wasn’t missed in the discussion, but I would have traded “human capital” investments for more focus there.

It’s hard to prioritize, and really, working in any of these critical areas will do much to energize the institutional change we need now. If you were personally tasked with “building the global library field” - and you had significant resources to apply to this challenge - what would you do?


  1. Ton van Vlimmeren, 4. December 2011, 2:22

    I couldnt have said this better!
    Thanks also to you.

  2. Jeffrey Scherer, 4. December 2011, 10:46

    Conceived and realized as distinct places for individual user groups, smart communities are building libraries that are extremely flexible–with sustainable design strategies such as energy conservation are increasingly part of the process.

    “After all, the most enduring and flexible learning institution is the library—organized for well over two millennia and predating the first universities and schools by well over one millennium—to provide self paced and self selected transmission of knowledge.”
    —Dr. Alan Bundy, University Librarian University of South Australia

    Successful libraries respond to their communities’ specific service needs. As institutions, they are reasserting themselves as important centers of learning and community focus. Libraries cannot be overused but can suffer from overuse.

    With the right resources and political will in place, the library can fast become the institution of first resort for all things cultural, intellectual, and educational. The only institution in a city that serves the minds of all of the population, one individual at a time, the public library remains the most equitable and democratic institution to serve all needs without judgment. Ways that the library can build a good community:

    » Inform citizens.
    » Break down boundaries.
    » Level the playing field.
    » Value the individual.
    » Nourish creativity.
    » Open minds.
    » Return high dividends.
    » Offer sanctuary.
    » Preserve the past.
    » Offer a content-rich collection.

    The library serves as the main institution that can facilitate community building and the creation of social capital. Social capital, as first defined by Coleman, Bordieu, and others, “is essentially the network of linkages, trust and bonds within a society that allow an individual to operate within a society that accrues advantages to that individual.” The World Bank defines social capital as “the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions…. Social capital is not the sum of the institutions that underpin a society—it is the glue that holds it together.”

    In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam states that it is necessary for us to transcend our social, political, and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves. The library facilitates these connections and enables us to connect to the minds of others through its collection, resources, and service. Libraries operate on many levels simultaneously. They can be a meeting place, learning resource, comfortable place to relax alone or visit with a friend, meet a group, teach a child, learn a new skill, research a stock or business, write a resume, find a car to buy, pick up a form, or find the name of a local musician to hire. The successful library is one that has a healthy equilibrium between the primary components of its operation: budget, service, and design. The budget provides the ability to attract talented staff and provide up-to-date and relevant print, non-print and e-resources. World-class service is tailored to the specific needs of the community and its many individuals. Design creates beautiful, context-sensitive, comfortable, and efficient library buildings.

    NOW: to your question: “building the global library field”

    I am past chair of Libraries for the Future; Chair of the ALA LLAMA BES Architecture for Public Libraries; and committee member of IFLA’ Building Section. Over the past 30 years and with the direct experience with 180 communities, I would suggest the following:

    1) Establish, with economic institutions, a meaningful and defensible way to define the economic returns of the library to a community. I know of the many, in-place studies, but they are not accessible to the politicians that control the library world’s funding. This would enable a more responsible and dynamic way to model–real time–the decisions facing the communities: essentially the Solomon’s choice of cutting the financial baby that often leave the library out in the cold because “feel good” arguments do not cut it when there are nasty financial debates that are forcing a focus on essential services–and without the tools to define “essential” libraries are being steam-rolled.

    2) Spend more time and emphasis on elevating the economic and political acumen of the librarian. They must be tough, knowledgeable able to navigate these financial-shark waters.

    3) Provide recognition of libraries that are winning this debate–not just the ones that are building anew. While I appreciate (and my livelihood is based on it) great library buildings, at this time in history we are facing the issue of surveil–and if the great architecture is not rooted in great strategy then it has failed. Provide a place where real “lessons learned” can be shared and best practices studied.

    4) We have to some how un-couple the librarians “need to preserve” from the threats of the digital age. OCLC points out that a way for Library projects to continue to get community support is to avoid representing Libraries as storehouse or even purveyors of information. Libraries that redefine themselves as vehicles for transformation will be both more likely to garner community support as well as be more faithful to their core mission and goals. Transitioning to being recognized as the place to use and share information rather than just a place where information is stored and accessed by lone individuals is critical to Libraries in the Digital Age. This transition highlights what can be accomplished with digital information at the library that cannot be done elsewhere. Tools for transition are critical

    I hope this helps further the discussion… Jeffrey A Scherer, FAIA

  3. Chrystie, 5. December 2011, 14:31

    Dear Jeffrey (hello on twitter by the way as well),

    Your number 2) is captured in the “human capital and leadership networks” item that we discussed and prioritized.

    Your number 4) was captured in the “shared solutions” item, as dealing with digital was the area where people wanted to focus most energy. Shared solutions suggested ranged from finding a fair use solution, developing a shared discovery platform, and even finding was to “franchise” things that need not be handled locally.

    Your suggestion that we advance economic models advances our thinking and is quite pertinent. This is perhaps one of the specific ways that we “measure impact and communicate value”, though I”m not sure we discussed this explicitly - the focus was more in individual benefits of the library, sharing indicators, tools, communications methods, etc. We did note that economic studies have been “so good” but the press release goes out, and this info doesn’t stick. Perhaps the question is: how to make it stick??

    Your suggestion that we recognize libraries that are doing this well - winning this debate, as you say - is also part of the “communicating value” piece. We know that data must be offered with illustrative stories, so that we open both hearts and wallets. :)

    I would love your comments on whether there should be a globally informed version of inside, outside, and online, where i spend the first two chapters making the arguments you made in your first few paragraphs of these comments. Do you think this would be useful? Do more people need to understand and consider social capital? Or is the fact that the *popular* notion of social capital is an american invention pertinent at all?

    I am not allowed, by the way, to write another book, or re-write another book, but maybe someone else will. :)

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