By Vailey Oehlke
Each of us knows innately how the world around us is changing. From the smartphone in our pocket or purse that connects us with people and information in an instant, to the ongoing threats posed by large scale corporate data breaches, our lives are very different than they were a few short years ago. There isn’t much we can predict with certainty except that more uncertainty is ahead.
And, of course, the public library exists in this same uncertainty. Some see this as a fundamental threat to libraries. I see it as a transformative opportunity to redefine our role of value, contribute to our communities and change lives in a totally unique way. Aren’t we fortunate to be in positions to effect this opportunity?
Multnomah County Library serves with a focus on three immutable “pillars,” transcending time and technological changes that define the library’s unique role of value in this community. These pillars are outcomes of a deliberate process of reflection with our staff and our community to understand and articulate how our library will look beyond our lifetimes and scope of influence. The pillars are: free access for all, a trusted guide for learning and the leading advocate for reading.
Using these pillars, we can inform and shape decisions based on what we know about the present and what we cannot know about the future. We see drastically increased demand for e-books and other digital content. We hear neighbors occasionally say things like “why do we need libraries anymore?” Our community is becoming more diverse. The effects of poverty and inequality become more evident each day. The issue of funding affects each public library differently and, often, the above issues compound unstable funding in ways that create a challenging set of circumstances for libraries.
So, how do we take these facts and not just come up with a response, but highlight and secure a position of relevance well into the 21st century and beyond? I believe that, together, we can play a key role in defining and demonstrating the value of public libraries to the communities they serve. Now, more than ever, it’s critical for those of us in public libraries to see our work as being unified in purpose. Only through our collective action can we change broadly-held perceptions of the library as a quaint place to browse and borrow books into something more apt and suited to the future. This is as true in small rural settings as it is in bustling urban centers across the United States.
At Multnomah County Library, we are working to define and demonstrate the unique role of value of this public library to the community it serves. In a world that’s becoming dominated by Google and Amazon, the critical offering of the public library is living, breathing, thinking people whose main goal is to help the patron find what she needs.
Even Google can’t replace a skilled librarian. Likewise, an algorithm on Amazon.com can generate purchase suggestions based on prior searches, but that technology, however advanced, can never replace a person; the messy, rich, iterative, complex experience that is human interaction. So, we’re putting our focus and our resources into this work with bold new approaches like the My Librarian project.
My Librarian, made possible by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to our local private fundraising partner, The Library Foundation, fosters lasting personal connections between a librarian and a reader. It’s a web-based portal to 10 personal librarians who meet you where you read and live. Readers can browse them like a menu, see their faces, learn about geeky areas of interest, see what they’re reading and engage whoever strikes their fancy.
We’re also investing in new ways to envision what we do. We’re taking a hard and honest look at our library’s value in this information rich landscape, with a call to our librarians to lead us in an initiative called Information Services 21 (IS21). This effort will highlight actions we can take in the next three years to act as a creative partner to our patrons; champion access for those who are being marginalized and shut out; create organizational capacity for change and adaptivity, reimagining our physical and virtual spaces with people at the center.
We will continue to allocate resources to best serve our community’s increasingly diverse needs. In keeping with the demand for virtual resources, we will pay close attention to use of e-books, streaming media and other electronic resources and prioritize those to keep delivering what our patrons want. We will also maintain our increased focus on non-English-speaking patrons with deliberate choices about staff, services and collections. We will dedicate outreach resources to vulnerable populations, across a broad spectrum of locations, ages and circumstances. We will view learning as a lifelong, self-driven set of experiences. From our support of reluctant readers through privately-funded partnerships with public schools to outreach to homebound seniors and in many other ways, we will keep our eyes on how our community is changing and we will adapt and evolve.
As we take these actions, we will listen to our community. As Multnomah County Library celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014, I’m struck by that longevity (150 years is a long time in the western United States). I believe that this institution has flourished in a beautiful symbiotic partnership with the community we serve. I don’t think this is an accident; I think it’s been a deliberate effort over many generations. I am honored to be one in a line of many library directors here who can help cement the library’s place in the community well beyond my time, and give my greatest effort to the community in which I work and live in the process.
Vailey participated in a webinar in October 2014 discussing these issues and more, download the recording!
About the Author
Vailey Oehlke was appointed director of libraries for Multnomah County Library in 2009. She is currently a member of the Urban Libraries Council Executive Board and served on the Executive Board for the Public Library Association (PLA) from 2011 to 2013. Vailey is the 2015-2016 PLA President-Elect. She received her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University and her master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois, Urbana.