November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox
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Building a 21st Century Library

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OverDrive Digital Bookmobile Interior

As technology changes the way we consume information, the role of the library is evolving. And yet its core mission remains the same: furthering education and supporting active learning within the community.

Hard as it is to hear, future libraries may or may not occupy a physical space. Digitally savvy patrons have an increasing desire for convenience — even instant gratification — that is changing the way they interact with their library, even changing the definition of what “community” actually is.

“It is a definite challenge today to get people to the physical library,” says Renee Lienhard, specialist of collection development at OverDrive.

Traditional programs like Digital Story Time for young children or Introduction to Minecrafter for grades 2-5 keep students coming back. Adult programming such as Photoshop Level 1 or Financial Planning for Taxes have enabled librarians to accommodate all life stages and ability levels.

In addition to inviting members into the physical library, there is a need for proactive reaching out. “I have always been enchanted by the stories of traveling librarians, especially when your librarian is not even human, but a camel,” says Lienhard. “It seems a bit old fashioned, but seeking out face-to face as well as social networking opportunities may be necessary to communicate with patrons. It can strengthen the importance of the library and the librarian as a pillar of the community.”

Community outreach can take many forms, including student internships i.e. “librarian for a day”-style programs. Career counseling for adults is nothing new, but additional programs for elementary, middle, and high school students can be expanded.

But as the community grows larger and more far reaching, libraries will need to find new ways to connect. Meeting them online is an opportunity. “I speak to school librarians each day who share both the challenges of transitioning to a digital library as well as the bountiful possibilities it offers,” says Lienhard.

Providing eBooks for servicemen abroad is another example of finding new ways to connect, or offering online courses for adult students working a full time job and trying to earn a GED. Online cataloguing is still another way.

For community members who move away, either short-term (college) or long-term (career), they can still be made to feel included in their library. “They want access to beloved services like their local library whether at home or abroad,” says Lienhard, who cites library blogs as a great way to do that.

Or, if physical structures disappear, outreach may take the form of bookmobile — like the one used by OverDrive, a free app that allows users to borrow eBooks, audiobooks and other materials from their local libraries.

That’s why curation—the librarian’s core mission—remains a great example of how librarians can participate in building their collections in the digital age. “Librarians like to show off their books, to be proud of their site, and introduce patrons to it,” says Lienhard, who says the number of digital books borrowed in OverDrive-powered schools alone last year increased nearly 60%.

That said, part of the library’s evolving mission will be to recognize how digital access may not always be equally available to patrons outside the library. Physical books have always been open to a majority of the population—tablets and smartphones, less so. Google classroom integration—where students access content through personal devices as well as classroom computers—is one way to level the playing field.

Beyond that, the 21st century librarian will also be required to educate these new digital communities about online security, the safeguards that exist both at the network level and on a user’s device.

“Individuals, regardless of age, need to be aware of the sites they access and the information they provide to them,” says Lienhard. “There needs to be a variety of safeguards in the 21st century library, for it to continue to be a safe and comfortable place for the community whether it is a physical or online space.”

This mission can only succeed when vendors and outside companies working with libraries are compliant with Child Online Protection Act (COPA), meaning children under age 13 cannot input their email address when using the app.

The success of a 21st century library is partly based on how the community values the institution. “I believe that there has to be an emotional connection to these places for them to be valued,” says Lienhard. “But also a belief that they are serving a purpose or filling a widely-recognized need like no one else can.”


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