Guest Posting by Jacqueline van Dyk
Charles Leadbeater is a leading authority on innovation in public services. He served as an advisor to Tony Blair. In 2003, he wrote a book called Overdue in which he stated “Unless decisive action is taken now, the decline of our public libraries could become terminal by the end of the decade.”
Despite that pessimistic viewpoint, Leadbeater feels that thriving public libraries are amazing institutions because no one asks who you are – you can just walk in. The idea of providing a shared space in communities where people can go to learn and access knowledge is still an amazing idea. That open and shared access is a simple and profound idea – an innovation.
That said, he also thinks that public libraries are an entire system that needs some new rethinking. In his view, the challenge is librarians who want people to fit into their orderly system; they are their own worst enemies.
Does he see a crisis? Yes. The stakes are high. He paints a grim picture. In the UK, he fears that public libraries will simply be a lost institution. He sees them getting turned into things that get fought over in a really defensive way – they are defended by what they were, rather than what they can become. In his view, UK public libraries are trapped: they lack the power and resources to innovate and change.
Makes me glad I’m a librarian in British Columbia. Our libraries have collective power, resources, infrastructure and the essential relationships that enable partnering and innovation. Libraries in BC are strongly embedded in local communities, have good regional connections and healthy provincial infrastructures. We are well-positioned to discuss a strong collective future.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have a crisis on our hands. Libraries are experiencing a “perfect storm” of pressures: rapid technological development, increased user expectations for services, increased digital resources, changes in the publishing industry and global economic instability. This is the time for inspiring leadership and energy as we carve our a new future for libraries. This is the time to rethink libraries in the face of huge pressures and new complexity. This is the time for innovation.
Let’s start by asking questions about the role of the public library.
What new roles can public libraries play in providing creative innovative space for people? In curating, providing, and demonstrating creativity with publicly-funded open data? With storing and providing access to community and social networking data? With creating communities around repositories? With providing shared collaborative learning space? With mobilizing people to do things for themselves? With remaining at the centre of our communities?
It’s up to all of us to tackle these questions – by engaging our community to find new and better ways of delivering services.
In a thriving library, people feel a real sense of ownership over the library itself, not just the services it provides or the information it shares. How do we ensure all libraries thrive? It’s time for a radical concerted approach to libraries. Now is the time to rethink and re-engineer the local public library. And we all have a role to play in leading this innovation.
Jacqueline van Dyk is Director of Libraries and Literacy for the British Columbia Ministry of Education, providing leadership for public libraries in the province. She can be reached at Jacqueline.vanDyk@gov.bc.ca.