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Notes from Executive Director Scott Garrison – Feb. 2024

This month, I’ll recap the first session of the Michigan Library Association’s 2023-2024 Think Space program, held in December 2023. Following its first two years focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion and how libraries can respond to pushback against those principles as they manifest in the form of book challenges, censorship, legislative activity, and more, this year’s Think Space’s agenda is all about the future of libraries. Though this program takes place in Michigan, it offers much food for thought for libraries everywhere. Note: this recap is long. I hope you find value in it.

Think Space 2023-2024’s first session featured Dr. Kathi Berens and Dr. Rachel Noorda from Portland State University, Michigan Chief Growth Officer Hilary Doe, library administrator and technology author, consultant, and speaker Nick Tanzi, library design consultant Margaret Sullivan, Karla Alvarez, Equity and Inclusion Services Manager for San Jose Public Library (SJPL), and Dr. Mary Brown, Culture Consultant at Steelcase. Read on for some of my takeaways from December’s Think Space session.

  1. Berens and Noorda began by summarizing some of the information from their November 2023 report published by ALA entitled Gen Z and Millennials: How They Use Public Libraries and Identify Through Media Use. Having surveyed 2,000 Gen Z and Millennial individuals about their information and entertainment behavior including but not limited to library use, Berens and Noorda reported on the types of materials survey respondents preferred (e.g., print graphic novels), their social media usage and frequency, how many visit libraries physically and online, pain points they find using the library, and where else they seek information. Following discussion among Think Space participants about some of their experience with Gen Z and Millennial users, the researchers explained the concept of “crossmedia,” or finding content of interest in one medium and then seeking it out in other media (for example, in a book and then video, or in a game and then video). They also considered survey respondents’ identities as a reader or “not-a-reader,” noting that people who don’t identify as a reader actually read as much or more than others. Berens and Noorda shared the idea that the more libraries know about where people look for information, the more likely they are to reach them. Also, to reach Gen Z and Millennial individuals, it is important to be able to move between media contexts fluidly. They closed with pain points younger generations face in using libraries and some solutions in terms of access to digital materials (i.e., as an equity issue) and reducing wait times, improving messaging in ways that resonate with individuals’ values, offering more graphical titles in library collections, and providing collections, spaces, and opportunities to create, for people who don’t necessarily consider themselves “readers” and who are drawn to libraries.
  1. Hilary Doe, the nation’s first statewide Chief Growth Officer, spoke about her work along with the Growing Michigan Together Council (whose report was released on December 14) on how Michigan can change some current patterns and accelerate growth. Doe asserted that failing to act would lead to Michigan growing at about 1/3 the national growth rate over the next 30 years, which would erode communities, undermine the tax base, limit the workforce, and reduce Michigan’s political influence nationally. She provided population trend data compared to both other U.S. states (including Indiana) and nationally, and cited three key metrics for growth: growing median income, rising degree attainment, and building vibrant communities. Doe compared a healthy growth cycle with positive net migration, economic vibrancy, tax revenue, public investment, and community wellbeing to a cycle of depressed growth with slowing birth rates and negative net migration, labor market challenges, revenue stagnation, and declining community wellbeing. She highlighted Michigan’s strengths in climate resilience, natural resources, and beauty, and opportunities to improve roads, transportation, housing, and more statewide. Doe reported that the Growing Michigan Together Council’s workgroups have identified specific priorities around jobs, talent, and people, infrastructure and places, and pre-K-12 and higher education, noting that she and the Council have done public engagement with over 3,000 citizens, conducted surveys generating over 11,000 responses, and held over 70 well-attended community events. Public feedback has emphasized infrastructure, workforce connections, access to job opportunities, and education access and affordability. Doe identified libraries as a resource for placemaking as part of Michigan’s value proposition, and it struck me that libraries help deliver three of Doe’s key takeaways from her work: access to great opportunities, great places to live, work, and play, and welcoming communities to call home.
  1. Nick Tanzi, Assistant Director at the South Huntington Public Library in New York, gave a balanced view of artificial intelligence (AI) and its current and potential impact on libraries and the world more broadly. AI offers many tools, use cases, and unknowns, can generate content that does not necessarily reflect reality, and provokes fear, doubt, curiosity, and much more for libraries, especially in current times with misinformation and disinformation being so prevalent. AI is disruptive, like the first graphical Web browser was 30 years ago, and though we may not understand its large language models and rapid evolution toward becoming multimodal (combining text, images, speech, and other data), libraries need to be prepared for AI’s impacts. AI is currently reactive, using its data to perceive and react to the world in front of it, and mimic humans’ ability to make decisions. Like library collections, AI is not neutral (having been developed to date mostly by white men with their own biases). It makes some work like computer programming easier, while other professions including artists may avoid it. AI is already influencing how libraries serve people, from chatbots and AI-enhanced databases that some library vendors offer, to emerging tools that publishers and media companies can use for data analytics and to edit and select content (including AI-generated) they offer. Tanzi anticipates that AI will become embedded in many systems we use daily (from operating systems to productivity suites) and sees AI-authored books and audiobooks in the future. He reminded the group that AI is not a replacement for expertise and requires media literacy around which most states don’t yet have standards (which sparked some discussion about AI’s impact on libraries’ already challenging work toward greater information literacy). Legal issues around AI include intellectual property and copyright, and ethical issues include AI’s intensive computing resource and energy consumption. With all this happening, and lacking a regulatory environment around AI, are libraries ready to evaluate AI tools critically? Tanzi advises library staff to read and learn (e.g., via the TLDR AI daily email newsletter) to frame questions while the AI landscape settles. He suggests considering policy, procedures, experimentation, and adoption like his own library is doing. To Tanzi, libraries have helped communities navigate disruption for years and could do the same with AI, demystifying and explaining both how it works and its biases promoting media literacy, and including what authorship, plagiarism, and other concepts look like in the era of AI. Tanzi closed by suggesting that if libraries want to see ethical AI, we need to be involved in creating it. Libraries must prepare for the enduring presence of AI, create certainty through policy, present an ethical vision of AI, and invest in it in ways that match our values.
  1. Next, Think Space participants had thoughtful discussions in both table groups and collectively about what libraries might learn from popular companies including Amazon, Apple, Costco, Delta Airlines, Disney, Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s. What experiences do these companies deliver to customers that keep them loyal?
  1. Margaret Sullivan brought her experience in architecture and designworking with many large public libraries on a variety of projects to ask how libraries can catalyze and activate their facilities to leverage their strategic impact, remain relevant, and prepare communities for bright futures that include innovation, ideas, and resilience. She emphasized the concept of placemaking, a multi-faceted approach to planning, design, and management of public spaces that capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential with the intention of creating public spaces that promote health, happiness, and wellbeing. Sullivan described connections between strategic planning around community needs, how libraries differentiate their culture and brand experiences from those of other organizations, and how to use human-centered design for services and spaces that meets the needs of target customers. She introduced the concept of library as studio, and how visualization can help libraries change how they work, create qualities, activities, and environments that attract, retain, and grow communities, and lower barriers and strengthen support for those who need libraries the most (in keeping with Eric Klinenberg’s book Palaces for the People). Sullivan suggested that libraries are committed to the advancement of the human condition like no one else and asked the group—some of whom raised the current issue of widespread loneliness—how many of them are getting involved with wellbeing indicators. She closed with an exercise in which each table considered possible functions a library could have and which to include in a physical space, urging participants to think differently about spaces and services based on their community.
  1. Karla Alvarez focused on her library’s relationship-building and change processes and community engagement through the lens of her experience in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work. She began with questions of which Think Space participants were at the beginning, middle, or furthest level of equity planning and implementation work and why that work may feel overwhelming. Responses included the question of where to start, a lack of buy-in from a library board or community, active resistance and pushback, a lack of staff to help, and the “EDI industry” that offers expensive consultants and creates huge programs that may lose the basic human dimension (to Alvarez’s point that equity work is people-centered). Citing shared language and definitions at SJPL, Alvarez noted that equity is about strengths as well as needs, diversity is about seeing and understanding differences including views and values (and determining what is at the core of beliefs when individuals’ values clash), and inclusion is about making connections and removing barriers (including with key stakeholders she sees: untapped patrons and partners). She spoke about the antiracist strategy of considering older policies and practices (such as fines and biased subject headings that have disproportionately impacted communities of color historically), to create equity at libraries in the forms of more diverse collections, accessible facilities, equitable access to technology, inclusive programming, and welcoming environments. Alvarez posited that in conflict transformation and social change, there are episodic moments that involve cultural and relational/interpersonal aspects, such as greater attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. There is also a broader context in terms of personal/individual and structural/institutional aspects. Change processes address both episodic moments and broader patterns and context. Next, Alvarez spoke about SJPL’s community data dashboard work to identify where different ethnic populations are centered, assess equity (e.g., to determine where to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots), and profile branch libraries based on ethnicity and language and understand disparities. In addition to local resources such as the Silicon Valley Pain Index, historical redlining maps from the 1930s, and San Jose’s city EDI standards, SJPL used The Harwood Institute’s Community Conversations process to assess issues of equity with four questions:
    • What kind of community do you want to be a part of?
    • How is that different than what you see now?
    • How can the library help create the kind of community you want?
    • What kind of programs would you like to see more of at the library?

SJPL has also used both the wheel of social identity and the wheel of power/privilege to consider identity intersectionality.

  1. Mary Brown closed the session, beginning with some of her own and her parents’ stories, including interests in science and technology and her sense of belonging at her childhood library in Benton Harbor, MI. She highlighted curiosity, self-awareness, and vulnerability as keys to her own story. Brown shared nine mental models and challenged Think Space participants to think beyond them:
    • Physical collection dominance – formats are changing, and diversity audits are an emerging strategy.
    • Fixed location service – libraries need to meet people where they are, pairing the digital with the physical. People may see a need for physical space anew post-pandemic, even if they don’t want to engage with others.
    • Standardized classification systems – outdated language needs to be updated. How can we make classification systems more intuitive and user-friendly?
    • One-size-fits-all services – consider the accessibility needs and other circumstances of people who are not in the majority. Future readiness can mean people can get left behind; don’t exclude them. This may raise a privacy concern, but Brown suggested that it is good to know about library users.
    • Limited community engagement – people who need libraries most can’t always get to them, so libraries should partner with other organizations and go where people are, including with bookmobiles. Brown noted that people who could only work from home during the pandemic felt more seen and valued than in other times, which should prompt us to think more about inclusive design (including physical and neurological diversity).
    • Reactive information services – libraries are often reactive based on community needs and stay ahead of trends such as AI. Brown suggested using analytics wherever possible.
    • Static skillset for library staff – as human organizations, libraries have a competitive advantage and can hire for growth mindset. How can libraries best upgrade staff skills?
    • Resource-centric approach
    • Privacy and data security – how can we make data security tasks such as password management easier?

Citing the circle of competence as a tool, Brown noted that each of her mental models has a result, and she asked participants to consider how to avoid results we don’t want. She offered the following ideas:

    • Lead by
      • Seeking diverse perspectives.
      • Encouraging open-mindedness and continuous learning.
      • Fostering a culture where questioning and challenging status quo is valued.
      • Engaging in regular reflection and critique of decision-making processes and assumptions.
    • Evolve to become future-ready by
      • Staying informed and adaptive (including tech trends and how they complement human skills).
      • Seeking unique collaboration and partnerships.
      • Advocating for resources and support that allow libraries to expand their reach.
      • Training and empowering staff to be equipped with skills and knowledge.
      • Creating inclusive and accessible environments.

Brown closed by offering Service Design Tools as a means of “backcasting” the future by starting with the desired conditions and considering what is possible.

If you’ve reached the end of this extra-long piece, extra thanks for reading! As we’ve begun a new year and consider the future, what are you seeing regarding the future of libraries? I invite your comments, ideas, and thoughts as always at