All our public services are operating in an environment with multiple uncertainties (not least economic trajectory, political trajectory, and environmental trajectory). Shared Intelligence and CILIP undertook this project to help public library services confront these uncertainties by constructing different versions of the medium-term future. We imagined them as different possibilities for tomorrow’s weather: stormy weather, blue skies, sunshine and showers, and another grey day. We then tested strategic issues against these different versions of the future. Our report presents three conclusions, the most important of which is about futures literacy in local public services.
Firstly, whatever tomorrow’s weather, public libraries are uniquely placed to address two population scale needs driven by two major societal trends: digital exclusion and social isolation. The challenge will be to meet these needs simultaneously. So rather than the public accessing technology in libraries as a solitary activity, the opportunity is to deliver a “People’s Network 2.0” which is both digital enabler and social connector combined. This means library activities and events built around free access to digital infrastructure, skills sharing, community activities, and the written word: the kinds of events which have boomed in other English-speaking nations.
Secondly, changes to governance models should not be viewed as a silver bullet for improving library services. Evidence suggests that the silver bullet, if one exists, is strong leadership which means choices about strengthening leadership are more important than governance choices for confronting uncertainty. In this context the prospect of a retirement cliff-edge in the sector could also be an opportunity to renew the workforce with new skills, and new capabilities.
Our final conclusion is the most important of all. The library professionals who worked with us on this project found thinking about the future “rewired” their minds, enabling them to see a wider perspective and imagine different possibilities “beyond the same-old same-old”. This kind of thinking is vital at a time when uncertainty about the coming decade is high, but at the same time it seems harder than ever to think beyond the short term. So our final conclusion is that library services everywhere should test their service offer against different versions of the future for their own communities. To support this we and CILIP have also produced a library futures toolkit alongside our report. It enables library services to apply some of the tools we used in this research – scanning trends and uncertainties, creating scenarios, using scenarios to test alternative approaches – so that every library service can begin to build their own futures literacy.