So a few days back I wrote up a little post that set off a few people, got some nice comments, and generated a tiny bit of buzz. Basically I asked a question, which I thought was a fair question, “What are libraries going to do when most everything is delivered digitally?” We’re getting close to that point. I can buy a lovely device that will carry my books, movies, music, games, and all manners of stuff on it. This device, if given proper capacity or a connection to the cloud, can carry more items than many large libraries. So, what are libraries to do when this happens?

One person said I don’t get it and that if occupations are defined by the tools they use and those tools go away, then naturally so too might the profession. I don’t think I’m daft here and I don’t think I’m being off hand when I say that all professions are defined by the tools they use. That’s actually what makes a profession, the ability to use tools in a way that most people don’t understand. I can use a scalpel, but that doesn’t mean I should perform surgery. A doctor might be able to search with Google, but according to some medical librarian friends of mine, that doesn’t mean doctors are good at using Google.

Either way, let me lay this out in a context that I understand and that might clear a few things up – by using science fiction.

You ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation? You notice how they have these things called replicators and that’s how they get a lot of their stuff? For instance, if Picard is thirsty he orders “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” and the replicator not only makes the tea, but it can also make a cup and saucer to properly serve it. Hungry? Have the replicator make you some food, anything you want. It occurs to me that, if we actually had this kind of technology, grocery stores would be in a hell of a jam, wouldn’t they?

Well, that’s kind of what I see libraries facing in the very near future. Apple’s new iPhone with built in Siri (Now with GPP, Genuine People Personality!) makes it so you can just talk to your device and get what you want. It won’t be long before this is available on an iPad and soon I can just pick up my iPad and say “Siri, get me the latest James Patterson book from the iBooks Store. Put it on my Visa card.”

So transformation is not only desirable, but one hundred percent necessary. Now we come to the next question:

Are we ready?

Some ideas about what we could do to enhance our services and further that transformation came up in comments and through conversations. Here’s a short list:

  • Help people create blogs, web sites, or teach them how to self publish.
  • Teach them the best and most efficient ways to find what they want online.
  • Create apps to better access our services from anywhere in the world.
  • Go to public places, businesses, and even private locations to teach, instruct, and serve their information needs.
  • Set up work spaces, shops, and places for people to learn how to makes things.
  • Help them learn how to create and distribute their ideas. For instance, a library studio that helps people make videos and post them on YouTube.

There are far more ideas. Ask fifty librarians and you’ll get fifty ideas. So what would it take to make this happen? I’m a technologically oriented guy, but creating an app is something I wouldn’t be skilled at. There are many working in library IT departments who might be able to create library apps, but do they have the time, backing, and resources? I’ve been known to make videos to post online, but I’m using my own equipment. The library doesn’t really have the money to purchase the necessary stuff to make a video studio, let alone two or three of them.

It’s easy to say we need to re imagine the library, but to do it we’ll need resources, skill sets, a willingness to learn and adapt, and the administrative vision to make it happen. After all, even if I get our Friends of the Library group to buy us the necessary equipment to say, set up a multimedia online studio for creating videos and podcasts, that doesn’t mean I have anyplace to set it up nor the time to devote to teaching people how to use the stuff.

I work with many bright and intelligent librarians both within and outside my library system. They use the Internet, they’re adept at searching, and they’re far from technologically illiterate. Yet some of them look at the video and podcast production stuff I do as something akin to magic. They read blogs, but they have no idea how to set one up or what the difference is between,, or  Blogspot. They use eReaders, but haven’t the slightest idea how to publish something for one, let alone how to distribute it online.

So are we ready? Well, no, not yet. I think we’re going to get there, but it’s going to take some time to reorient not only our profession, but ourselves as well. I have specialties that you don’t and there are things you can do that I shouldn’t even attempt. I think a good first step, especially within your own library systems, is a simple but highly important one.

Look around you. Look at your colleagues. What are they good at? What is it that they know more about than anyone else in your system? I work with a geologist, a doctor of psychology, a talented guitarist and musician, and a master storyteller. What about you? Let me tell you, it’s much easier to figure out who should do what when you find out who would be the best at it.

And if you feel the interest, leave a note in the comments about what to do after you find out who your experts are. This transformation, this change, will not happen overnight nor should it. But after you figure out who does what the best, where do you go from there?