Yesterday my wife Deb and I took a tour of the amazing Queensland Library in Brisbane, Australia and were thoroughly impressed with both the size and scope of their facility.
With an aggressive plan to archive the history of Queensland, the library has preserved literally millions of artifacts including documents, maps, music, ephemera, photos, recordings, and videos. They’ve even begun work on a language archive to preserve many of the dying aboriginal tongues.
Majestically positioned along the Brisbane River in the heart of the city’s cultural district, the library offers a full restaurant serving wine, beer, and hard cider; an event center and auditorium spaces for rent; their own boat dock along the riverfront; coworking spaces; cultural exhibits; and their own library shop to purchase books, games, and souvenirs.
Over the past few weeks I’ve followed a number of discussions among librarians, many lamenting the state of their profession. Our once highly credentialed specialists are being replaced with techies and unpaid interns, creating a rather frustrated librarian community.
Ironically though, libraries are firmly positioned at the intersection of information, education, and business, the same intersection where new billion dollar startups are being launched on a regular basis. While libraries have been stubbornly resistant to charging for basic services, as they should, the encroaching do-more-with-less climate is leaving few options for traditionalist thinking.
Library services are never free. It’s only a matter of who pays. Taxpayer funding streams will grow increasingly competitive over time. Since libraries have little control over public subsidies, it may be the right time to consider generating some of their own. For this reason I’d like to open a discussion on the topic of premium services.
Queensland Library, Brisbane, Australia
The Changing Nature of Libraries
People go to libraries for information. In the past it was all about stationary, physical forms of information. Today, information has taken on many new forms, making it simultaneously digital and physical as well as fluid and stationary.
Proximity still matters, but not in the same way.
When we seek answers, the time and distance involved in getting the answers weighs heavily on our decision to pursue them. So does the sorting, screening, cross-correlation, discernment, discrimination, pattern-matching, and form-translation processes we must go through to unlock the hidden gems that mesh with what we’re after.
Information is never instantaneous, self-evident, or in any respect, free.
If synapses were money, we’d be spending a boatload to find the truly remarkable stuff.
Libraries have evolved to reduce our expenditure of physical currencies as well as the synaptical kind. With resources at every turn and search experts an arms length away, the “finding” process gets as short as its ever going to get. Well, at least until the next information evolution. Or until we can pay physical money to replace our “synaptical expenditures.”
If you walked into a library and could greatly speed up the “finding process,” what services would you be willing to pay for?
Here are a few option for what may be possible in a world of premium services:
- Professional Search – Virtually every library subscribes to a variety of databases that the average visitor has little understanding of. Beyond the obvious areas of digital search lie non-digitized books, manuscripts, photos, videos, and other documents. Comprehensive search coupled with detailed reporting is perhaps the most obvious premium service to offer.
- Build-Your-Own-Website Coaching Service – For those who have never done it, creating even a simple presence online seems like voodoo magic.
- Create-a-Video Coaching Service – Recording video clips has become as simple as pushing a button. But cropping, editing, adding music, and adding text remains outside the scope of most amateurs.
- Create-a-Podcast Coaching Service – Audio-capture, audio-editing, and audio archiving made simple.
- Launch Your Own Business Toolkit – Starting a new business requires everything from filling out forms, filing documents, to registering with certain government agencies. Virtually every form of government has its own set of requirements and a little hand-holding on the front end can save a ton of time on the back end.
- Photo and Image Enhancement – Old and torn photos repaired, black and white images colorized, archiving paper photos converted into digital form, building genealogical collections, and more.
- 3D Printer Services – Where to look for existing 3D printable objects, how to modify, customize, enhance, and what materials to use when printing.
- Legacy Building Services – In a digital world, your legacy can live on long after you die. In fact, it’s never too early to begin managing your legacy and there are a variety of tools that will make it easy for you to get started. This could also include a basic will-writing service.
These are but a few of the possible premium services that a library could offer. I’m sure I’ve missed many, so please feel free to jot down additional ideas in the comment section below.
Queensland Library, Brisbane, Australia
Yes, some libraries already charge for premium services, some private and some public, but it's rare and not the norm.
Libraries will continue to evolve as the form and nature of information goes through its many phases. Future forms of information may take on characteristics totally foreign to anything in existence today.
However, for professional librarians to continue to exist in the future, it’s important to consider the creation of new economies to fuel growth. Adding premium services, known affectionately as freemium services in the online world, would seem to be the natural evolution of both the librarian profession as well as libraries, the institution.
These are human-based systems, designed by-people-for-people, and always subject to change.
What will libraries look like 1,000 years from now? It’s hard to imagine. But rest assured, they will be different.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything