“The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. “William Gibson, as quoted by Stacey Aldrich, Deputy Secretary for the Office of Commonwealth Libraries.

Last week, I attended our System’s annual meeting where I learned many things. I learned that the business community of my county has a generous spirit when it comes to libraries. I learned that the future of libraries may be connected to transhumanism and robots, among other things. And most importantly, I learned that our new State Librarian is a practicing futurist. But I”ll get to that in a moment.

The meeting was remarkable for several reasons. For one thing, much long overdue recognition took place–for the Council of Friends of Lancaster County Public Libraries (for their hard work and dedication over the years) and for the library volunteer of the year (a first-ever award), along with established awards for trustee of the year and staff member of the year.

We also recognized a distinguished group of local business people who have supported the countywide Summer Reading Program for years–some for just a few and others for much longer, one sponsor going all the way back to the 1980s. These business include Auntie Anne’s, Inc.; Barnyard Kingdom at Country Barn; Dutch Wonderland Family Amusement Park; Integrity Bank; Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches; Lancaster Barnstormers; Lancaster Ice Rink; Laserdome; McDonald’s Restaurants; Bowling Centers of Lancaster County; Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire; Rita’s Franchise Company; Strasburg Rail Road Company; and Susquehanna Bank. Together they contributed more than one million dollars in prizes, discounts, and other support for the countywide summer reading program. Collectively, they received a well-deserved standing ovation from the appreciative crowd, which included most of the directors of our member libraries (the reason we do what we do), library staff, government officials, members of the public, System staff, board members, and others–a room filled with library advocates.

The highlight of the evening was the keynote presentation delivered by Stacey Aldrich, newly appointed Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth Libraries, more commonly known as the State Librarian. Prior to this appointment, Ms. Aldrich was the State Librarian of California appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is kind of cool in and of itself. However, by far the coolest thing about Ms. Aldrich is that she is a professional futurist (and former board member of the Association of Professional Futurists), which means that we now have a futurist guiding the direction of Pennsylvania’s libraries..into the future. What an incredible opportunity.

According to the definition linked to above at the APF site, a professional futurist is “a person who studies the future in order to help people understand, anticipate, prepare for and gain advantage from coming changes.  It is not the goal of a futurist to predict what will happen in the future.  The futurist uses foresight to describe what could happen in the future and, in some cases, what should happen in the future.” It sounds to me like a futurist doesn’t necessarily make assumptions about what will happen in the future.

Ms. Aldrich illustrated this point by showing a slide with an image from the 1950s that depicts a woman, perfectly coiffed, white apron tied in bow, hosing down her sofa. The caption reads, “Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose.” There are a lot of false assumptions about the future associated with that image and caption.

Aldrich contends that the core of library services will remain the same–to collect, preserve, connect, create, and convene. What will change is how we deliver these services. With that in mind, she’s asking the following questions:

How do people find and use information?
What is community?
What is learning?
What is work?
What is leisure and entertainment?

and keeping her eye on the following:

Information Everywhere
Big data
Everyone is a creator
Physical and virtual

She’s asking these questions and keeping her eye on these things because the answers to the questions have changed and will continue to change over time and the concepts and things listed above will become important in answering those questions.

She went on to describe a few of these concepts in more detail and how they relate to libraries. This gist was that librarians can’t make the assumption that we will be wearing high heels and an apron to hose down our sofas in the future. We can assume that we will still be cleaning in some fashion, but we can’t assume that we’ll look the same or use the same tools. At least that’s the bigger meaning that stuck with me. We have to look around us–at everything that’s happening in our world–in order to move libraries forward into a future where we will be equipped to be true to our core–to collect, preserve, connect, create, and convene–having adapted to the environment in which we find ourselves. Not taken by surprise, but as the result of becoming aware of what’s possible now and what may be possible in the future. And being ready to step in and take our place.

As the quote at the beginning indicates, many futuristic technologies are already possible and already being used. They’re just not being used everywhere–yet. When will they reach libraries? Will we be ready?

For some reason, after the presentation, the catchphrase that kept running through my mind was one made famous by Buzz Lightyear–“To infinity and beyond!” Oh, I know. There’s a little thing called reality (much like Buzz finding out he’s not a real Space Ranger) that sometimes gets in the way of moving forward into infinity and beyond. A reality that includes politics and money and other roadblocks. But roadblocks only matter if you’re on a road. And maybe, if libraries are smart, don’t make assumptions, and pay attention, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

It’s all about possibilities. Whether we’re going Back to the Future or To Infinity and Beyond, we need to keep open minds and a indulge a broad vision.

What better person than a futurist to move Pennsylvania’s libraries forward into the future?

(Many thanks to Stacey Aldrich for providing me with the slides from her presentation to reference for the purpose of writing this post.)