Thousand of library professionals from around the country swelled the population of Boston in recent days as the American Library Association (ALA) held their 2016 Midwinter Meeting here. For four days, they gathered at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to attend workshops, listen to speakers, chat with publishers and talk shop. So, what happens when so many librarians gather in one spot?
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from this annual conference, but I am sure it was not what I was seeing as I rode the escalator down to the enormous, gleaming exhibition hall on the Boston waterfront.
Sure, there were publishers large and small, scads of librarians and plenty of books. But the vast space was dominated by hundreds of vendors, from French ebook specialists to big data solutions, and folks peddling everything from language-learning software to 3D printers.
Take Christian Casault, who’s Montreal-based company offers NetSpot, a kind of Zipcar for iPads: Docking stations that allows you to check out a customized tablet for a few hours—or few days—with the swipe of a card.
"So, if it’s storytelling time on a Wednesday afternoon you can preload an interactive presentation of The Lion King, for example, where two or three kids would be able to follow," Casault explained.
When the company launched six years ago, Casault never dreamed that NetSpot might appeal to libraries. They figured cruise ships and hotel resorts would be their bread and butter. Today, they count libraries large and small throughout Canada and the U.S. as customers.
"At this point in time it’s about 20 percent of our market, but we see it growing to be easily, easily a good 50 to 70 percent of our business," said Cassault.
ALA President Sari Feldman said none of this should come as a surprise.
"Libraries today are less about what we have for people and more about what we do for and with people," Feldman said.
And what they do for and with people, she says, is increasingly about far more than books.
"So in a place Sacramento for example, they’re offering sewing machines," she said. "In the state of Maine there are telescopes that people can borrow at libraries across the state."
But this movement to transform libraries into vibrant, multi-use, community spaces is not without its challenges. New kinds of programs require a new kind of staff with new kinds of skills—staff like Digital Services Librarian Nick Grove, from the public library in Meridian, Idaho.
"Currently I work at a digital services center that we opened titled 'Unbound,'" said Grove. "I work on projects ranging form 3D printing to graphic design to sound recording and video editing and I work closely with a local incubator to help small business and entrepreneurs."
As for longtime professionals, like Scott Schmucker, who has worked in academic libraries for 18 years, the job today is—in many ways—brand new.
"The things I learned in library school are a little bit different than the work I’m practicing today as the electronic world has exploded and the information world has exploded," said Schmucker.
That explosion, says Schmucker, presents libraries with another crucial challenge: The perception that they aren’t all that necessary when you have access to a world of information in your pocket.
"We are even more relevant now that we have ever been because not everything is online, and not everything online is free. A Google search will not get you everything you think it’s going to get you," he said.
The innovative ideas driving libraries in the 21st century are exciting, says Feldman, but at the end of the day libraries need to still be libraries.
"We are still about books and about reading, so it is a struggle," Feldman said. "Libraries across the country are looking at this balancing act between satisfying and nurturing our traditional users and people who are looking for much more innovation and interaction and the creative commons."
Still, Feldman remains unabashedly bullish on the future for libraries, and their expanding mission to provide access to information of all kinds—for free—to everyone.
"Libraries are neither obsolete nor nice to have—they are essential," she said. "We are the foundation of a democratic society and the values of libraries in America are some of the most important values of citizens."
Of course, amid all of this bustle and enthusiasm, the books and the gadgets, there was also a sizable elephant in this expansive exhibition room: figuring out how to pay for this bright future.