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ALA “Libraries at Crossroads”

*Funded by a professional development award from the NN/LM MidContinental Region

Karen Wells
Exempla St. Joseph Hosptial
Denver, Colorado

ALA 2012 logo

I attended the ALA Conference, Anaheim, along with 20,134 other attendees. The theme was “Libraries at Crossroads,” covering transformations in services, digital resources, and customer needs.

ALA challenged us to examine: our past, our present, and our future.

The Past

Historically, the library was a storehouse of archived printed materials. Only a select few such as scholars could go into a library. Libraries had limited access and it was librarians who initially retrieved materials for people to use in the library and return them on site. The “catalog” of item location was known often exclusively to the librarian. Later on, classification schemes and the card catalog became accessible to patrons’ usage, as they were more freely admitted to the library to borrow items.

But libraries still were STOREHOUSES and their purpose was to solve information scarcity through librarian mediation. This made librarians highly valued by researchers.

The Present

Today, that scenario is much changed. Information is bountiful and ubiquitous.  Users are becoming significantly more adept at do-it-yourself (DIY) searching.  WikiAnswers showed a 136% in growth over the past 5 years, according to a 2010 OCLC Report of the Perceptions of Libraries,1 The Association of College and Research Libraries reported reference questions down by 60% since 1995.2

DIY searching is possible as library commercial databases are more user friendly, often performing weighted searching, mapping, and related and synonymous linkages automatically, using lay language.

User characteristics have thus changed. Users are:

  • Using reference tools other than librarians and approaching library staff only when needed.
  • Shifting to faster, quicker search processes.
  • Executing “SATISFICE,” by stopping their searching when their own personal levels of acceptability are achieved.
  • Expecting technology tools to further help them in more DIY searching.3

Technology tools are conduits for DIY information access. Reports from AT&T note an increase of 20,000% in wireless data traffic. Smart phone sales have gone through the roof. Traffic to mobile web sites grew 600% after tripling between 2009 and 2010.4 Statistics reported by numerous others at ALA reported a massive increase in the use of mobile devices, with adults using a cell phone for many activities, as seen in the chart below:

graph showing cell phone uses

Social networks usage is STILL high. No longer seen as just a fad, usage is 68-87% of adults ages 12-49.5

So where do we go from here?

The Future

We need to change our services from those that suited the needs of the old scenario to those that enhance the needs of today’s world.

Speaker David Weinberger, fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says the universe of knowledge can only be comprehended by knowledge networks, aided by the platforms on which they reside. He challenges us to think of LIBRARIES as the platforms on which all of this can reside.6

chart showing libraries as the platform for information

Moreover, Pew Research Center (Pew), ALA’s Library Information Technology Association (LITA,) and other ALA speakers, noted the following librarian futuristic roles:

  • Aggregators, organizers, and facilitators, of networked, community (learning) nodes.
  • Identifiers of high quality information, as sentries, evaluators, filters, certifiers, and authenticators of the ambiguity of networked information.
  • Virtual facility cultivators and developers of creation libraries rather than collection libraries.
  • Archival collectors.
  • Structured data project specialists, since we have owned structured data in the form of authors, works, and subjects for many years.

LITA and others called us to stop designing things for librarians and start designing them for our users. A huge change in how we train people must shift from didactic, singular instruction to communities of practice. More services, spaces, people, events, and tools, are needed that will allow patrons to locate the information, and make use of it through more networking experiences. Many are promoting open spaces, event gatherings, white board spaces, and librarians with no offices, but rather sitting in the middle of the gatherings—engaged as part of the gathering.

Stephen Abram, Gale Cengage Learning, said that learning may be enhanced through assessment of users’ emotional response; known as “experienced-based transformational development.” Said Abram, “We say we’re about learning, but most of the evidence is, we’re about reading.”7 We need to make sure we are in the LEARNING business as well.

In summary, ALA encourages us to realize this is a time of great opportunity for librarians and libraries. We should think about how:

  • Libraries can be the PLATFORM on which the KNOWLEDGE NETWORKS reside, using the tools and data libraries already understand.
  • Libraries can meet the need for the way technologies have impacted our profession, particularly through developing MOBILE FIRST.
  • Librarians can develop opportunities in which ACCESSED INFORMATION is USED in some useful way so libraries participate in active, community-focused learning which further promotes libraries as attractive spaces of engagement.

Alfred North Whitehead said “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” Historically, we librarians have been in the forefront of progress, always bringing together community and knowledge, in an organized manner. We still can, by addressing the need for new services, digital resources, and customer needs, and by being forward looking, willing to keep an open mind to approaching better advances in our profession that are yet to be.


1OCLC. 2010 OCLC Report of the Perceptions of Libraries. Available at

2Anderson, Rick. The crisis in research librarianship. J Acad Librarianship; 2011; 37 (4): 289-290. (as reported by Boyhun in Kim, Bohyun; Colegrove, P; Clark, J.  I Can Do it All By Myself : Exploring New Roles for Libraries and Mediating Technologies in Addressing DIY Mindset of Library Patrons.  ALA June 2012 Presentation. Slideshow available at:

3Kim, Bohyun; Colegrove, P; Clark, J. I Can Do it All By Myself : Exploring New Roles for Libraries and Mediating Technologies in Addressing DIY Mindset of Library Patrons. ALA June 2012 Presentation. Slideshow available at:

4Kim, Boyhun. It’s Time to Look at Your Library’s Mobile Website Again. ALA Presentation, LITA Mobile Technology Group, June 2012.

5Pew Research Center. Libraries 2020: Imagining the Library of the (Not too Distant) Future. SUNY Library Association Annual Conference, June 7, 2012.  Available at

6Weinberger, David. Fellow, Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. ALA Auditorium Speaker. June 2012.

7Library Information Technology Trends. Top Technology Trends. ALA Presentation, June 2012. See the blog at

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