What words come to mind when you think of libraries? "Austere?" "Serene?" "Fusty?" "Invigorating?" "Shhhhh!" Of course, it all depends on your opinion of libraries. However, the words that probably don't spring to mind for many people are "innovative" or "cutting-edge."
Yet, for decades now, libraries have been attuned to new developments in information technology and adopted them to enhance their collections and serve their communities. If you've already decided to make a career in librarianship, then staying abreast of emerging trends in library science is not only a subject of interest, it's also one of the crucial skills you'll need to function effectively as a librarian in the modern age.
In this article, we lookat the latest trends in library and information science in three different categories:
- Collection management
- User engagement
We'll conclude with a section on what may be in store for the future of libraries.
As repositories and access points of information, libraries are often defined by their collections. Collection management is a major component of any Library and Information Science (LIS) degree program. In addition to books, newspapers, magazines, and audio-visual content, library resources in the 21st century are significantly enhanced by new digital formats, which allow libraries to enhance their offerings without costly physical renovations. Below are some of the collection management innovations being used to make enormous amounts of information accessible to all:
- Electronic resource management (ERM): With an increasing selection of eBooks, eJournals, and the like, a vast amount of information is now available digitally. ERM helps librarians keep track of what is and isn't available (both in terms of accessibility and authorization), who is accessing it, and what particular items people find most useful. All of this facilitates both collection development and management.
- Cloud computing: Just as libraries' services have expanded to include access to computers and the internet, library collections are now significantly enhanced by cloud computing, which increases the sheer amount of digital information libraries can make available to their patrons (and which doesn't have to be physically stored anywhere).
- Federated search (FS): Similar in concept to cloud computing, federated search allows users to hunt for information spread across various databases in different locations using only one interface. It enables the virtual consolidation of information resources without the hassle of actual physical consolidation, making research that much easier.
- Internet-of-Things (IoT): If connectivity is one of the hallmarks of our time, the Internet-of-Things could be our era's poster child. Devices that can communicate with other devices have proven very useful as a form of library technology, not only because of the ramifications for the library space itself (such as maintaining consistent air quality), but also for initiatives like self-checkout, automated material handling systems, auto-recommendation services, and metadata discovery tools.
Beyond all other considerations, the main function of a library is to help inform and improve the lives of its patrons. It's a testament to the power of libraries that they have continued to do so even as so many other distractions are now available. One of the reasons libraries have succeeded is that they have embraced technological progress. Hopefully, we will always have library stacks full of knowledge to wander through, but the following tech developments have been added to engage users:
- Digital displays: There's certainly nothing wrong with an old-fashioned sign, printed out or scrawled in pen or chalk that tells patrons where they need to go to find what they need. But think of how many eyes may be drawn to a digital display, complete with graphics and the ability to scroll through multiple announcements. So much attention is paid to digital screens these days—why not fill at least one of them with something that could lead to a real library adventure?
- Gamification/augmented reality: To anyone who would scoff at the idea of a library visit being an adventure, we present the following two innovations. Game activities that foster reading and augmented reality spots that patrons can access through their devices encourage reading, research, and learning.
- Makerspaces: If the ultimate goal of a library is not simply to provide the individual with information, but also to help them to think of how they might use that information, why not provide them with a space in the library where they can put their ideas to the test? This idea informs the current proliferation of library makerspaces, which are just what they sound like: spaces where people can make things with the help of machines furnished by the library.
- User-focused interface (UFI)/artificial intelligence: UFI, like makerspaces and gamification/AR, seeks to forge a stronger connection between the patron and the library space by personalizing their interaction. This most often is achieved through such AI innovations as chatbots that can address a patron's needs and help them navigate unfamiliar territory in digital libraries and other open-access systems. This sort of library automation also frees up librarians for other tasks, leading to greater efficiency.
- Big data and data visualization: Consolidating information in a way that makes it less overwhelming represents an important innovation for our current system. Through the use of visual aids like maps, graphs, and charts, vast amounts of data stored in information systems around a particular topic can be presented so that the user can more easily find and access exactly what they need.
- Mobile-based library services: Much of what is discussed above is about relating the library's physical space to its users. But what about those who can't necessarily visit the library? There are mobile apps that allow patrons to access a library's user services remotely through their smartphones. These are often paired with learning management systems that support self-paced online courses by administering, tracking, and documenting a learning plan.
It's almost quaint now to think of the days when some people were reluctant to give out personal information to a library for fear of whose hands it might fall into. (The maintenance crew, perhaps?) With libraries becoming increasingly reliant on technology and digital interaction, the problem of secure information is astronomically larger than it was when all you had to worry about was the wrong person rifling through a drawer full of index cards. Here are a few innovations that are helping libraries maintain security:
- Single sign-on: This is an automatic authorization system through which a user, once verified, needs only click on a single link to access the system. Not only does this negate the need for more complicated verification processes, single sign-on makes the patron/library experience more personalized by using the same tech that identifies the user to "remember" what information services that user most often employs.
- Radio-frequency identification: This technology permits libraries to use radio waves to tag and track items from the institution's collection. Not only does this increase the security around making sure that the library's inventory isn't pilfered, but it also streamlines the check-out/check-in process for patrons and allows librarians to quickly determine whther an item is available or out on loan.
Libraries of the future: what to expect
Libraries were already well on their way to increasing the percentage of their collections that are digital and available remotely, but the pandemic accelerated that effort. We can expect to see public libraries' digital collections continue to expand, as many library patrons prefer to access library materials in this manner.
The pandemic also reinforced the library's role as a vital community resource, with some libraries working with local social service organizations to assist their patrons with issues such as food security, job searches, substance abuse, mental health care, and housing. As libraries continue to look for ways to transform their spaces, expect to see more of this kind of outreach.
Of course, technology will continue to be an important part of future libraries, due in part to the expansion of augmented reality and artificial intelligence. While many people now interact with chatbots online when they need help, expect to see a move towards incorporating actual robotics into library systems, something that is already happening in some places.
Finally, in tandem with their involvement in social work, libraries are likely to become increasingly involved in ongoing efforts toward social justice. Indeed, according to the American Library Association (ALA), libraries have already played a significant role in creating digital equity, through such opportunities as expanded computer labs for those who can't afford to buy their machines, the provision of WiFi signals that offer 24/7 free internet access to the surrounding area, and offering both physical and virtual job and employment resources.
These new trends in library and information science translate into ever-increasing access to greater amounts of information for everyone, and more and better ideas as to what can be done with that information—all of which, hopefully, leads to better served and more cohesive communities. Although we can probably rest assured that some things will never change. (Shhhhh!)
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