It’s the economy…

In these Tough Economic Times (or, the TET as we refer to them around here) there is a lot of speculation about what the future may hold — for the auto industry, for homeowners, and of course for libraries. Today’s Freakonomics blog (which sees “the hidden side of everything”) predicts a possible upswing in usage of public libraries, asking, “As consumer spending recedes in the face of the credit crisis, will libraries become more popular than shopping malls as a destination?” and pointing to numbers from a recent Boston Globe op-ed that show that library numbers are up, even as the economy is down. And people are coming in for more than books — it’s things like (my favorite) storytime, access to computers, classes, free cultural programming. This diversity is good for library business.

Indeed, both public and academic libraries have been shifting their spaces to accommodate for a variety of uses. Handily enough, my colleague Lorcan Dempsey has just written about this (and many other things) in the article Always On: Libraries in a World of Permanent Connectivity in First Monday:

Library space has been a major preoccupation in recent years as institutions have thought about how best to cater for social learning, to accommodate related endeavors (writing center, centers for digital scholarship, specialist advisory services), and to deal with print collections.

Spaces increasingly cater for ad hoc rendezvous, for flexible meetings, and for communication alongside more traditional ‘study’ space.

Lorcan goes further to suggest ways that libraries can continue to evolve to meet patron needs.
In addition, there is a need for facilities for recharging, for synching with the ‘cloud’, for copying/sharing media. Access to specialist or high–end equipment also becomes a potential service, as does lending of accessories or laptops.

The effort to define libraries as about “more than books” is important. I heard a “Perspectives” piece by Kevin Smokler on my local public radio station (KQED) earlier this week that pointed to the demise of books, and the publishing industry generally. “The blockbuster era is dead,” Smokler proclaimed, and reminded us that “reading is a choice,” and a choice of luxury at that. In an entertainment “market of limitless diversity,” the blockbuster book which has been propping up a portion of the publishing industry is at risk.

If the book as commodity is indeed on the decline, than this diversification of our “industry” will prove to have been incredibly important. But only if our society can recognize and support the very real value that libraries bring to society. Continuing to think strategically about the value proposition and where we will need to shift in the future will be important in terms of delivering what’s needed. The TET will be with us for a while, and my hope is that libraries will not only survive but flourish.

[Thanks to my colleague Bruce Washburn for pointing me to both the Freakonomics post and Lorcan’s words about space.]