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Digital Transformation and the Public Librarian’s Role

by Tienya Smith

A few years ago, I began to notice that my public library’s out-of-school time (OST) environment was changing. My OST colleagues at the New York Hall of Science and the American Museum of Natural History were using tools like evidence-based learning models and design thinking to enhance their curriculum. Their organizations integrated web applications into their audio tours, exhibits, and learning spaces. My OST peers used new phrases like big data, digital divide, and algorithmic thinking during networking events. In observing these changes, I witnessed the digital transformation of New York City’s STEM informal learning community.

A similar shift was happening in the public library sector. I did not understand what was happening at the time. However, I did notice how companies like Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Apple influenced the behavior of our users. For example, customers responded more readily to digital marketing and increasingly ordered and streamed materials online. Additionally, Business-to-Consumer (B2C) platforms like Amazon and Google replaced services like readers’ advisory and in-person/telephone reference.

In this environment, I had difficulty estimating and delivering what customers wanted when they wanted it. My tools and approaches were outdated. So, I went back to school to gain a better understanding of how data was disrupting public libraries.

Throughout my analytics program, my professors stressed the importance of :

Aligning an organization’s business and operating models
Adopting an agile management methodology
Innovating in an ambidextrous manner
Fostering a data-centric culture.

These four elements are essential to achieving a successful digital transformation based on what I have learned. Yet, most public libraries utilize waterfall or traditional models to manage their organizations. This top-down approach is not limber enough to sustain a digital environment. At best, some public libraries could potentially adopt a data-driven approach within specific departments and incorporate some machine learning tools. However, a complete digital transformation is not feasible. Public libraries lack the infrastructure to capture the full potential of artificial intelligence (AI), which is necessary to maintain relevance in their current economy.

In light of this challenge, what is the role of the public librarian? Is it ethical AI advocacy, translating the library for data scientists, or ensuring our stakeholders are data literate? The public librarian is actively performing all these roles. But, they are not helping the library to adopt an agile management method or a data-centric culture. The public librarian’s next task is to lead an ambidextrous organization.

An ambidextrous organization* exploits its core practices while simultaneously exploring innovations. These two tracks, exploitation and explorations, are kept separate and performed by different teams. Both paths would provide the public librarian with two unique but complementary perspectives. The exploration track would allow the public librarian to see emerging trends, management methods, and paradigm shifts within the library’s ecosystem. The exploitation track would permit the librarian to recognize changes in customer behavior and how B2C platforms are disrupting or replacing library services. These observations could provoke changes to the business model, disrupt the culture, and drive incremental updates to the library’s current products and services. The act of exploring and exploiting could challenge the status quo while catalyzing to move the organization forward. Ambidexterity could lead to changing the public library’s infrastructure and paving the way for a complete digital transformation.

*O’Reilly III, Charles A. and Michael L. Tushman. Lead and Disrupt: How to solve the innovator’s dilemma. Stanford Business Books, 2016.