Written by Jimmie Epling   

“The Reports of Our Death

Have Been Greatly Exaggerated!”

By Jimmie Epling

Every now and again a prophet possessing the great wisdom gained from years of learning and experience will ask “do we need libraries?”  Some say libraries are dying.  Others see a more promising future, if libraries act now to secure it.  Not long ago leadership and management guru Steve Denning asked this same question at the combined Library Leaders Summit and the Computers in Libraries Conference in Washington, D.C. (see Fortune. April 28, 2015).   He observed “libraries everywhere are under threat of extinction,” just like many sectors of the business world, “from massive disruptions of their business.”  His answer to the question “do we need libraries” was yes, but libraries have to change to meet the needs of those they serve.  To those who say libraries are dying, the Library responds with a version of the popular Mark Twain misquote, “the reports of the death of the Darlington County Library System have been greatly exaggerated!”

There is no denying that the world we live in has changed dramatically in the last two decades.  As an example, think of the changes brought about by just one invention, the smartphone.  What once needed more than a dozen devices that would span the width of a basketball court, we can now accomplish with one that fits in the palm of our hand.  Services we frequently use have changed as well, such as banking. ATMs, automatic deposits, electronic bill paying, mobile payment, and digital wallets have radically changed banking.  Of course, all this new technology has not made our lives quite as idyllic as Mr. Denning suggests.  It has given rise to new costs, cyber hacking, identity theft, and algorithmic trading. 

In an ever evolving “brave new world,” Mr. Denning sees taxi service being replaced by Uber and Lyft, no one needing to buy a car when there is Zipcar or Car2Go, and no need for huge hotels when Airbnb has you covered with 800,000 listings in 33,000 cities.  All are intriguing services that are still evolving.  All these have their place and time, but I’ll keep my car.              

Within the world Mr. Denning describes, physical book stories have “succumbed to Amazon” as paper books are replaced by the Kindle and other devices.  It seems he hasn’t noted e-books sales have dramatically slowed.  Yes, he is right when he points out that the last Encyclopedia Britannica printed was in 2010, with its 40,000 articles and 100 editors in one language.  But to say it is “no match” for Wikipedia with 35 million articles that are constantly updated by 69,000 editors in 288 languages it a bit of a stretch. It was recently reported that after a decade all those Wikipedia editors finally caught and removed an entry created by an anonymous Australian contributor who concocted a fake Aboriginal deity named Jar'Edo Wens.  It seems these editors are a bit slow about updates, too.  As an example of such, the “Algorithmic Trading” article includes the note, “this article is outdated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information. (January 2015).”  The authoritative and reliable Britannica, which is constantly being updated, is available online to you through our 24/7 reference database resource, DISCUS.     

So, faced with these trends, can libraries, like our own, avoid the Grim Reaper of progress and disruption?  Mr. Denning says we can.  Sure we can and are already doing so!   

Mr. Denning’s first suggestion is we not focus on outputs, that is to say just counting stuff that happens.  He is correct.  It is just not enough to focus on the number of items we circulate, number of attendees at children’s programs, or computer users.  We have to look at what is behind the numbers.  What do they show?  When you walk into a place, you want a “delightful” experience.  We call it providing an exceptional customer experience.  We want you to enjoy your Library visit.  That is why, within the last year, we renovated and expanded the Lamar Branch.  We are now renovating the Darlington Branch.  Part of the “delightful” experience is finding what you want, whether it is the latest best seller, access to the web from your own device or through our public computers, or being helped by “cool” librarians.  All the capabilities and ingenuity of our talented library staff is focused on anticipating what you really want and delivering it.

“Continuous innovation” is the catch phrase Mr. Denning uses to describe a shift in values from efficiency to continuous improvement.  He is absolutely right in that we must look to the future and encourage innovation.  Moving the Library forward to meet the ever-changing needs of our community requires an outstanding and dynamic leadership at all levels within the Library that is dedicated to seeking out new opportunities to improve the Library for you.  This kind of thinking is at the core of our values and what we will deliver.  Within the next couple of weeks, we will be announcing the Summer Reading Program and its unique twist, a new effort to get books into the hands of our students this summer, a new magazine collection, and new training opportunities.  We will even be experimenting with a library catalog that uses the Raspberry Pi and touch screen monitors in the months ahead.  We must continuously innovative to avoid becoming irrelevant and obsolete. 

The next suggestion of Mr. Denning is actually a “no brainer” for any business or organization that wants to survive - changes that make things better for the Library, but not for our customers, will lead to disaster.  We are looking for better, faster, cheaper, more mobile, more convenient, and more personalized ways to serve you.  Customer service is all about customer convenience.  Customer convenience is not being transferred on the phone four times until you reach the person that can help you, who just so happens to be in the Philippines.  It is not discovering an extra one dollar charge on your bank statement from a certain gas station for using a debit card!  Do not worry, there will be no new “convenience” rules or changes introduced at the Library.  Finding and filling needs customers haven’t even imagined yet is another suggestion from Mr. Denning.  He is right on the mark here.  Staff are encouraged to ask customers what they want and envision better ways to serve them.  Often, a customer can’t imagine the possibilities.  Those who do not regularly use the Library often see it as just a building with some books and computers.  The Library has resources and a talented staff able to make things happen when there is a need.  Imagining future needs in the community and how we can fill those needs, outside the bounds of “traditional” library services, is part of what we do.  It also insures we remain an integral part of our community.

Is it true, as Mr. Denning contends, “libraries may not have to invent the future,” just discover it?  He suggests looking at the things that we are currently doing that customers already love and how can we do more of it “sooner, better, faster and in a more convenient, more personalized way.”   Yes, we are doing this and stopping things that our customers don’t value or that annoy them.  To be what you need and want, it is true, we have to look beyond our doors to discover ideas for our future, but it is up to us to use these ideas to invent a future library you will find useful and relevant in your life.

Is the future of public libraries and the Darlington County Library System’s as dim as some would have you believe?  Absolutely not!  We are going to avoid a visit by the Grim Reaper by looking into the future, changing to meet it, proactively shaping it, and anticipating what you and our community wants in a library.  Yes, reports of our pending death have been greatly exaggerated!   

May 18, 2015 

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 30 December 2015 )