“Peak Library”: Approaching or Avoidable? | From the Bell Tower

Since the dawn of the Internet, claims have been made that libraries were doomed to obsolescence. While that has proven a false narrative, what is the possibility that libraries might someday achieve “peak library”

Steven Bell head shotSince the dawn of the Internet, claims have been made that libraries were doomed to obsolescence. While that has proven a false narrative, what is the possibility that libraries might someday achieve “peak library”?

My 2015 column “Advice for Academic Librarianship: Think Like Ford” resonated with quite a few readers as it profiled a company trying to reimagine itself in a future where its current way of doing business had the potential for complete obsolescence. What made the Ford story more interesting is that at the time, the automobile industry was peaking. Sales of vehicles had hit an all-time high and were projected to keep rising. Ford, it seemed, had a bright future with a dynamic chief executive officer who had a vision for how Ford would transform from a 20th century vehicle manufacturer to a 21st century mobility enterprise. As is often the case with predictions, things deviated from the plan. Ford bid farewell to that CEO for reasons that are less than clear, since the company still appears to be re-inventing itself as a mobility service designer. The auto industry also finds itself in a state of change four years later. It has gone from record to static sales. Yet even in times of prosperity, Ford knew it had to adapt for a different future, one in which the combustion engine–driven vehicle would no longer be the dominant mode of transportation. It had to become a change-ready organization.



When industry analysts put the word “peak” in front of anything, they are stating that there is a cap in place or evolving, such that use or production is soon to diminish from historic highs. Whatever that peak may be—cars purchased, gallons consumed, or tickets sold—that number is now history, never to happen again. Peak oil, for example, suggests a landscape where new energy alternatives are permanently driving down the demand for and production of petroleum. The article “This is What Peak Auto Looks Like” describes a world in which traditional internal combustion cars are increasingly problematic and decreasingly of interest to new generations seeking urban centers that offer a host of non-combustion engine mobility options. Think bikes, e-scooters, and robotic ride share services. While cars will remain essential to large segments of the population, even suburbanites and rural communities will discover alternate modes of transportation. Peak auto is exactly what Ford is planning for. How well are they doing since I suggested in 2015 that libraries should think like Ford?



One thing that remains the same since I last wrote about Ford is its continued restructuring as a mobility service provider. Rather than focus primarily on combustion engine vehicles, Ford is venturing into a multitude of platforms to get people from point A to point B. That includes everything from e-bikes to e-cars, along with self-driving buses and logistical support for personal travel. Since 2015, Ford demonstrated its commitment by announcing it would stop producing all of its non-SUV and truck vehicles. It also made two other strategic moves. First, it acquired Chariot, a start-up mobility service that uses small vans to provide on-demand rides. In addition to entering the ride share market, Ford obtained Chariot’s mobility logistics app technology. Second, Ford acquired the long abandoned Michigan Central Station, a Beaux Arts train station and office tower in downtown Detroit. It then hired the Snøhetta architectural firm to design the renovation plan. Part of Ford’s future thinking is to create new urban centers that will bring workers back to center city locations where their mobility services will be in demand by car-free residents.

By establishing a path to a different future for itself, Ford is anticipating peak auto and continuing the work it started several years ago to reimagine itself as a completely different organization that designs and delivers mobility solutions. What would a similar strategy look like for libraries that wanted their community members to perceive them as institutions reimagined to deliver a nontraditional experience?



Libraries are forever linked with books. It’s unavoidable. OCLC got it right when it declared in 2010 that the library’s brand is books—and that remains unchanged to this day. Despite lending objects far removed from books, the addition of creativity spaces, expanding into social support services, and a myriad of innovative programming, if it’s something other than books, people fail to associate it with libraries.

What would peak libraries look like? New libraries cease to be built. Existing libraries are no longer expanding. Libraries enter a state of permanent and ongoing retrenchment. In many urban centers, in the past decade, school libraries achieved peak library. Peak school library may be caused by the defunding of public education, but local school administrators intentionally chose to fund other priorities. According to the American Library Association’s 2019 State of America’s Libraries report, the use of libraries and type of services provided is more robust than anytime in past years. If that level is static and begins to drop, we might see that as another indicator that peak library is here.



Perhaps the challenge for libraries is that the real issue is “peak book.” If community members’ continued perception of libraries is primarily books, as future media delivery and consumption options expand and traditional books diminish as a segment of that market, that may leave libraries vulnerable to the perils of peak status. What will work in our favor are ongoing efforts to reimagine libraries for a future where we are more than books, just as Ford is positioning itself as much more than internal combustion engine cars. In essence, it is the librarians’ age-old conundrum of how to best create awareness and change mindsets about the full range of contributions libraries make to their communities. “Libraries Transform” is a good campaign to rebrand libraries as proactive agents of change in their communities, but to avoid peaking we will also need to transform libraries from within.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Dan Michniewicz

Our brand is information. It's not books. It's not about something you can hold in your hand, lend, or house in a building (all of which are still OCLC's primary focus and, agreed, certainly what people outside of our profession view us as being about). It's about information. Say it. We acquire, organize, and provide access to information. I and my colleagues can get you information. Say it. You need librarians and libraries in the modern online-dominated world because we can get you information. Say it. Different formats of information are important. Cataloguing and indexing of those formats and the content within those formats is important. Sharing information is important. But it's still about the information. Say it. Say it again. Over and over again. Information. Stop perpetuating the position that we are about books and we will stop being viewed as just being about books.

Posted : May 17, 2019 01:38



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