Future-focused Library

My Letter to the Editor was published in the Elk Rapids News today. Below is the full text before I cut it down to the 200 word max.

This is response to a group fighting potential library improvements. Their letter in last week’s paper urged residents to drive 20 miles to nearby libraries and used the fact that the number of children in the village of Elk Rapids is declining.

The letter is at this link AND the other letter below mine shares some disturbing stats about the village – please click through.


Full Letter:

As a part time resident and taxpayer in the ERDL service district, I must express my dismay at the recent response to the library’s exploration of improving its facility. I worked as a librarian for 15 years in Indiana and now I am an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at San Jose State University. Our online graduate program prepares new librarians to support and uphold one of the foundations of libraries: providing services and access to information for communities. It also allows me to live full time in Michigan.

Is public library use declining in the United States? No, it’s changing. The nature of what people can do at public libraries is amplified by technology not dampened. Public libraries can now serve as experiential spaces for people to experience and learn about technology. Access to technology that community members might not have at home is one such example of the role public libraries are playing. Pew Internet and American Life recently reported on libraries as centers for learning and community growth – calling library users “lifelong learners.” See also https://theconversation.com/has-the-library-outlived-its-us…

“The Library is a growing organism” is a foundational tenet of librarianship and I believe ERDL is exploring how best to serve future citizens – with space for experience and for the needs of young people. Shouldn’t we balance preserving our historical heritage with the future patrons of this library – hopefully the children of families who might move here for the excellent schools and a thriving future-facing library? Or is it better to promote the fact that the number of children in Elk Rapids has dropped. Is that the story we want to tell? I would also ask all in the community to consider the implications of asking citizens to travel to other nearby libraries. Why not just put up a sign at the village limit that says: “Libraries are not important to us.”

The newly opened public library in Aarhus, Denmark, found a way to acknowledge the important moments of the community citizens it serves. The building features a large tubular bell that rings whenever a child is born in the town. Consider how that child might grow up, reminded of the library bell ringing while attending events there. What other life events might be distinguished at our own library or enhanced by library ­services?

The preliminary drawings and information shared about the library improvement project demonstrate to me thoughtful care to uphold the historical nature of Island House and the environment of the island itself while still creating a welcoming and usable space with room to grow. Please view them at the library or online.

I truly believe libraries should strive to be the heart of the community, offering access to materials and information, experiences and opportunities to learn about the world. Libraries serving all sizes of population can feature innovative spaces for learning, group collaboration, and promote engagement with content and people. The sky is the limit for a community-centric entity built with intense user focus and involvement. Whole-hearted participation in planning is much more important than obstructionism. I would strongly urge the community to consider the library we want for the future not the past.

Michael Stephens

Assistant Professor, San Jose State University School of Information
Author, The Heart of Librarianship, ALA Editions 2016