What Are Your Scenarios Depicting Different Futures for Libraries?

imagesGuest blog by Joseph R. Matthews and Peter Hernon

Joe Matthews is library consultant with JRM Consulting Inc. <http://www.joematthews.org/>

Peter Hernon is professor emeritus at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Increasingly there are discussions about the relevance of libraries to their communities, parent institution and organization.

Planning focuses on that relevance, acknowledges the past, and addresses the present and a vision of the future. We all know that it is better to choose your own future and work to achieve it than to have a future—not necessarily a preferred one—thrust on you.

A powerful tool for conceptualizing the future, as we discuss in Reflecting on the Future (ALA, 2013), is the creation of scenarios such as the ones we presented for academic and public libraries, and perhaps to engage in scenario planning.

Scenarios and scenario planning help us to:

  • process alternative futures and identify their implications;
  • recognize we do not have one future, but many;
  • allow options to remain in play;
  • seek to consider new and different options;
  • help us to think more broadly about the forces that are impacting libraries;
  • engage others so that many views and insights are explored;
  • liberate us from past thinking and practices;
  • help us move to a “preferred future.”

Chris Batt, who lives in the England, asked, “If given a clean slate, would we invent libraries as we know them today?”[1]  We would modify his question to recognize that the concept of a library is changing and, for some libraries, quite radically. Thus, for us, a better question is, “What future lets libraries best maintain their relevance to the mission of their parent institution or organization, and best meets the expectations and needs of their customers in the digital age?”

In 2011, ALA released Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Library, which suggested four dimensions that a library could choose (total physical vs. totally virtual; individual focus vs. community focus; collection library vs. creation library; and portal vs. archive). We see those dimensions as quite limiting and failing to approach scenarios fully from the perspective of institutional or broader organizational relevance.

Every library has a seemingly endless array of possibilities that they might carefully consider so that we do not miss the opportunities that come their way.  And, developing and using scenarios in the planning process help us to recognize important opportunities as we strive to make libraries more relevant to future generations.

[1]  Chris asks the question and discusses several possibilities in this video available at http://sils.unc.edu/news/2010/chris-batt


About Ken Haycock

Ken Haycock is currently Research Professor of Management and Organization at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, where he coordinates graduate programs in Library and Information Management.


One Response to What Are Your Scenarios Depicting Different Futures for Libraries?

  1. Cameron Tuai January 28, 2014 at 11:38 pm #

    Thanks for piece on scenario planning. My one comment concerns your question, “What future lets libraries best maintain their relevance… and best meets the expectations and needs of their customers in the digital age?” I think that your use of “customer” limits the perspective to information as commodity. Perhaps the inclusion of the ALA (2011) dichotomy of “individual vs. community” would broaden potential scenarios beyond a for-profit framework.