What will happen to libraries?

Libraries everywhere are under threat. After all, who needs a library today, when it is possible, without even getting out of bed, to find and read almost any book or article that has ever been published? One is tempted to recall the reaction by some to the recent news that Radio Shack had gone bankrupt: “Radio Shack bankrupt? I didn’t know Radio Shack still existed!”

The scale and pervasiveness of the disruption that sectors like libraries face is amazing. But the disruption isn’t limited to products. Whole sectors of commerce are under threat.

Physical banks with branches, tellers and checks are being replaced by online banking with mobile payments and digital wallets. Taxis are being replaced by Uber and Lyft. Video rental stores like Blockbuster have given way to online streaming by Netflix and Amazon. Television networks are facing similar inroads. Venerable retail clothing chains are being undermined by fast fashion firms like Zara and H&M, with product cycles that are completed in weeks, rather than a year. And who needs to buy a car when there is Zipcar or Car2Go?

Most physical book stories like Borders have already succumbed to Amazon, and paper books are being replaced by the Kindle and other devices. The last Encyclopedia Britannica in 2010, with 40,000 articles and 100 editors in one language, is no match for Wikipedia, with 35 million articles that are constantly updated by 69,000 editors in 288 languages. Will we ever see another Encyclopedia Britannica in print again?

Against this background, what is the future of libraries? There is no reason to think that libraries are necessarily immune from the Grim Reaper of disruption. Do libraries have a future at all?

For several decades, libraries have made significant efforts to make themselves relevant to the computer age with elaborate efforts to computerize services and develop new technology. Will this effort pay off?

To answer that question, we need to recognize that the computer age is not fundamentally about computerization. The computer age is about the change in management mindset enabled by computerization.

That’s because the most important thing that computers and the internet have done is not just to make things faster and easier for organizations. Even more importantly, they have shifted the balance of power in the marketplace from the seller to the buyer. The customer is now in charge. The customer has choices and good information about those choices. Unless customers and users are delighted, they can and will take their business elsewhere.

As a result, the slow moving hierarchical bureaucracies of the 20th century can no longer cope with the speed and complexity of a marketplace where success depends on understanding the wants and needs of fickle customers and finding ways to delight them. Ponderous bureaucracies—with individuals reporting to bosses, with roles, rules, plans and reports—simply can’t cope.

The economy that has emerged to deal with this new marketplace—the Creative Economy—runs on different management principles: self-organizing teams delivering value directly to customers with constant feedback from customers. The role of the manager is transformed from a controller to a coach. The team itself has a direct line of sight to the customer and can see whether what they are doing is leading to customer delight. The customer becomes the center of the organization’s universe, rather than being on the periphery, or not even present at all.

The future of libraries is a story that has yet to be written. I don’t pretend to have “the answer” to that story. The only thing we know for sure is that the story will be different from the story of libraries in the past. But here are five questions that could lead to the right answer. In fact, the key to unlocking the mystery requires asking the right questions.

The first and most important question for libraries is to ask: How can we delight our users and customers? This is a tricky question to answer. Answering it will require all the capabilities and ingenuity of the talented library staffs. Libraries will be unable to answer it if they continue to be run as vertical bureaucracies focused on producing outputs. In that form, libraries simply won’t have the agility or the institutional smarts to figure out what users really want and then deliver it.

This recognition leads on to the second right question. How can we manage the library to enable continuous innovation? This will involve a shift to the management practices of the Creative Economy, including the shift in the role of managers from controllers to enablers, the shift in coordinating work from bureaucracy and counting outputs to Agile approaches to coordination and assessing outcomes, the shift in values from efficiency to continuous improvement, and the shift in communications from top-down command-and-control to horizontal conversations.

The third question is: What will make things better, faster, cheaper, more mobile, more convenient or more personalized for our users? The most important words in this question are the last three: “for our users.” Changes that make things better for the library, but make things worse for users, are not the answer.

The fourth question to ask is: What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of? We can’t solve the mystery of the future of libraries by asking users what they want: they simply don’t know! They can’t imagine the possibilities, just as users couldn’t have told Steve Jobs the future of music or mobile phones if he had asked them. Apple had to invent the iPod and the iPhone. Once users saw those devices, they said, “Yes, I must have them.” So libraries must imagine a future that users will truly want, even though users themselves don’t yet know what that is.

Using the right metrics to track customer delight will be important here. A informal poll at this week’s conference suggested that relatively few libraries are using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) methodology. Instead, the metrics in use seem to focus on outputs, like numbers of users or circulation figures. Although we all love librarians because they are instinctively helpful, getting feedback from users about the overall utility of the library as a whole, using the NPS methodology, would give libraries a handle on whether their efforts to delight users are paying off—or not. There are no points here for librarians putting in exceptional personal effort, as they do. The only question is: are those efforts resulting in exceptional user outcomes in comparison to other alternatives that users have?

This inquiry would lead to the fifth set of questions. What are the things that libraries are currently doing that users already love? How can libraries do more of those things, and do them sooner, better, faster and in a more convenient, more personalized way? Can they work with the very threat (technology) that threatens them? And how can libraries stop doing things that users don’t value or that even annoy them? In other words, libraries may not have to invent the future. They may be able to discover it. I might have found a way. If you are working for a library, drop me a message.

Check out my related post: Why business cards will still exist?

Interesting reads:








  1. You’re right about libraries under threat. We need to think of libraries as more than just a place to borrow books. The Toronto Public Library (https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/) also has online books, new comer training, homework assistance for kids, passes for museums, readings for authors, computer training, online training and many more services. Here’s something interesting: a think tank called Martin Prosperity Institute did a study back in 2013. It estimated that the Toronto Public Library had a total economic impact of $1B. https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/content/about-the-library/pdfs/board/meetings/2013/dec09/10_1.pdf

    I just hope our politicians recognize the good libraries are doing and continue to invest and support them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think that libraries have a part to play in the whole ecosystem. The challenge now is for them to figure out what that is. Would it be the third place similar to Starbucks where people come to hang out or would it be the sanctuary of knowledge similar to Google? What I’m proposing is that they listen to their customers and try to adapt their model. Interesting study about the Toronto Library.


  2. While not to extent in the past, I think there will always be a need for print books for reference. Others, myself included,just prefer they physical media to reading a book online. There is also the portability factor where you can take them wherever you go an not worry about the battery dying.

    I do agree that libraries will need to change to serve the needs of the community they are in. The libraries in the city I live in have some options for digital lending for some items (books, magazines, songs). The also have free events for people of all ages. In the past year I have taken two watercolor painting classes using different techniques and a class where we painted a design on a dollar store umbrella. They also have all sorts of programs for kids including Harry Potter themed events this past Summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved libraries as a girl and was in one last month – it brought back wonderful memories of being excited to start stories within the many books I saw around me. Getting lost in words is wonderful! I think there will always be a market for physical books in addition to electronic ones so libraries will still remain. Plus, they house historical documents that need preservation.


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