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Miguel Figueroa: "Collaboration is the future"

Posted By CILIP Webmaster, 06 October 2017

Miguel Figueroa: "Collaboration is the future"

When asked about what the library of the future looks like, Miguel Figueroa, director of “The Centre for the Future of Libraries” of the American Library Association, responds “I really don’t think there’s a prescribed future for libraries so it’s very difficult to point to specific libraries and say this is the library of the future. Instead, it has everything to do with the needs of your community and finding a library that is pursuing one of several futures that aligns with your vision and your community’s needs.”

Formerly a director of the ALA Office for Diversity and the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, M. Figueroa still very much a follower of community-orientated approaches by library services, although his current involvement in library futurology is mainly focused outside the immediate environment of libraries to consider trends and changes from other sectors.


How did the idea of “Center for the Future of Libraries“ come to life? Was it a longtime plan developed within ALA? How would you describe your mission, expected outcomes and target audiences of your work?

The Center for the Future of Libraries is modeled on a very successful program created by the American Alliance of Museums. Their Center for the Future of Museums was founded in 2008 and does excellent work. AAM and the Center for the Future of Museums have been very generous in providing guidance and advice through our two plus years of development.

The Center for the Future of Libraries really came together because leadership at the US Institute of Museum and Library Services and at the American Library Association looked at the work of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums and saw an opportunity for a similar venture for the library world. While there are similarities between our two types of cultural institutions, there are enough differences that it helps to focus on each of them distinctly. ALA received an initial planning grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to plan the Center for the Future of Libraries. That grant laid out three very clear goals that we continue to work toward -  identify emerging trends relevant to libraries and the communities they serve; promote futuring and innovation techniques to help librarians and library professionals shape their futures; and build connections with experts and innovative thinkers to help libraries address emerging issues. This is ongoing work, but we are starting to see some very positive outcomes.

Miguel, how would you identify yourself professionally? What is your educational background, degrees, prior professional experience? And most importantly, how does one become “Chief Oracle of Libraries of the U.S.A”?

So, I’m a librarian by training having received my Master’s in Library Science from the University of Arizona. That said, I often tell people that I have not been a very successful librarian in practice – most of my work has been related to the field, but not working in a library. I worked for a publisher of library science books, as a trainer for a regional library program, and in several roles in library associations. I think these roles have helped me understand what I am good at – synthesizing and sharing the good work and best practices of library professionals for our mutual benefit.

I would strongly push back on the “oracle” title. I think most of what I was originally doing was trying to bring together some of the really excellent futures work already happening in libraries – whether by individuals, by organizations like IFLA or OCLC, or by our partners like the Center for an Urban Future – to help synthesize it and make it accessible to our members. As we have progressed into this work, that role has expanded to also try and sift through emerging information and connect identifiable trends to our library values. That work, like the original work, is part of a partnership with ALA members, the larger library profession, and our allies from other disciplines. My role has mostly been focused on compiling information and making it accessible to the larger community of readers – something very much in line with my essential librarian nature.   

Futurology is quite a tricky deceiving field of science. Those unfamiliar with the subject most likely say that experts might just make educated guesses and hope that no one recalls their predictions. Could you please shed more light on the methodologies, mechanisms and tools that you employ when developing current and future trends in libraries?

So, I think for much of our early work we are trying to focus on committing to relevance rather than perfecting prediction. I usually promote the words of Edward Cornish, one of the founders of the World Future Society, who says “We can learn a great deal about what may happen in the future by looking systematically at what is actually happening now.” The best library directors, managers, and innovators do this already – they constantly look at changes in their community of users and they make incremental adjustments to help the library align with new needs and interests. We want to broaden that excellent work and try to make it more accessible to library professionals.

We also use the Cone of Plausibility or Futures Cone as a tool to illustrate that there are many futures, not just one and that those futures are connected to changes that we experience in the present. This helps reinforce the idea that we study change not so that we can accurately predict any one future, but so that we can be prepared for any one of several futures that might happen. We start to see what’s coming next.

Finally, I think one of the most important pieces that we are trying to add to the process is that we need to consider changes and trends in light of our values. If we blindly follow trends, we will not achieve a beneficial future for our users. We need to look at trends in our world and consider how they align with our professional values – intellectual freedom, access, diversity, preservation, discovery, learning, etc. When these trends support our values, we might be able to leverage them to our advantage. When trends of changes work against our values, we may need to intervene for the benefit of our users. So even as trends and innovations change, the values that have steered libraries for hundreds of years remain – and they remain because they are essential to who we are.

What does behind-the-scenes at the “Center for the Future of Libraries” look like? Could you describe a typical working week at your Center?

I think the work week is very much focused on research and reading. I usually start my week with a very long reading list that helps me scan for trends and changes. I compile that information into a weekly e-newsletter called “Read for Later”. The newsletter is meant to save some time for library professionals and give them a quick digest of some of the changes in our world that might have implications for libraries.

The trends-scanning that feeds into Read for Later eventually feeds into our identification of specific trends. We have a growing collection of trends on our web site. Each trend entry features information about how the trend is developing – usually pulled together from the trend-scanning – and then the more important information about how it might matter for libraries – pulled together through conversations with ALA members and library professionals.

And then a lot of my time is spent out in the field with librarians and library professionals at meetings and events to talk through some of these trends and to think with them about how the trends affect our values. It’s a far more collaborative process than the staff list would indicate.  

Some of the most productive opportunities for libraries arise as part of collective impact actions: new partnerships, unusual collaborations, sharing of the workload when reaching for the same goals, etc. Would you say that libraries form and maintain relationships easily? Are we seen as attractive and equal partners by other institutions in both public and private sectors?

I think somewhere in my travels someone noted that collaboration is the future. I have really started to believe that through this futures work. More and more, from whatever sector you are working in, the future will more than likely come from outside of your immediate environment rather than from within it. In trend-scanning, you are encouraged to scan broadly and to intentionally look across sectors – the Center uses Society, Technology, Education, the Environment, Politics & Government, Economics, and Demographics to define our categories of scanning. As we identify trends and connect them to our values, it becomes easier to find potential partners and to make clear to them how their interests and library interests are connected.

Great libraries and library professionals have always been able to form and keep relationships. Our hope is that by sharing some of this trend-thinking we can help library professionals make new connections with partners around emerging issues. I have yet to find a potential partner that is not interested in working with libraries and libraries – we are valued, trusted, and respected for our work in communities. The new hurdle is in making it clear that our interest lie with their interests, that we are more than just books, that the trends and changes our partners are most interested in are also of interest to our work and our values. 

What do you think are the most worrying trends in politics and government? Are we very wrong to expect that, in the 2017 Post-Brexit and Trump era of shifting towards the far right and extremism, there will be quite a stir in libraries across the globe? Could you point towards the most alarming political tendencies that librarians should be aware of?

This is a timely question and one that our best library leaders are certainly starting to tackle. We need to look at trends and changes in our political environment with an eye toward our values, especially ideals like diversity, access, privacy, intellectual freedom, and civic discourse. If the political climate turns against these values, we will likely need to prepare interventions that might address those changes. And so we have seen several libraries invest in statements, programs, and partnerships that help bolster these values in a changing political climate.


Thank you for your answers!

Ineta Krauls-Ward

on behalf of CILIP Community, Diversity & Equality Group

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