Large groups of people in many parts of the world feel threatened and disoriented by global economic changes that are hard to interpret and even harder to accommodate. New technology and automation are making once secure jobs obsolete. From the Brits that voted for Brexit, to the coal miners that voted for Trump, to the Filipinos that elected a tough talking Rodrigo Duterte, all of them are looking for a bit of security, a shield against forces they can't control. And herein, I argue, is a surprising and dramatic opportunity for local libraries. Hear me out.
I'll begin from a personal standpoint. My father-in-law, Howard Davenport, worked at Geneva Steel for 38 years. He got the job in 1948 when it was just about the best job you could get in Utah County. He made a comfortable wage that let him raise a family, take a few vacations, save for retirement, and even help his daughters with college. In 1987, he accepted an early retirement offer because Geneva Steel was cutting costs trying to stay in business. In the end, cost cutting was not enough. Geneva Steel filed for bankruptcy and had to shut down. The massive blast furnaces were extinguished and the trainloads of raw ore stopped rolling in. Today only a mile wide slag heap remains of a plant that was once almost a city unto itself.
Many people wondered why Geneva Steel failed. It was a responsibly managed operation and it's not as if the country doesn't still need steel. The answer is simply that someone invented a less expensive way to make steel. Geneva Steel was something called an "integrated steel mill". It required enormous inputs of manpower and energy to ramp up and keep running. In the 1980's, an innovative new collection of technologies called a "minimill" emerged. A minimill can startup and shutdown quickly and requires a much smaller workforce. At first, minimills could only produce steel at the low end of the quality scale, like rebar, for example. But by the late 1980's, minimills had evolved to the point that they could produce the same quality of product as an integrated mill, at a fraction of the cost.
This story is not unique to the steel industry. The same thing has happened with coal miners as fracked natural gas displaced coal as a primary fuel for power generation and mining automation further reduced the demand for coal miners. Technological innovation and automation have disrupted jobs and products in every sector of our economy. Music publishing has been disrupted by streaming music services. Physical media-based movie distribution has been disrupted by Netflix. Taxi services have been disrupted by ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft.
This pattern is not an anomaly that will pass. All evidence indicates that the pace of disruptive change is only accelerating. Consider the potential consequences of the following near horizon examples:
- Self-driving cars and trucks are poised to offer big improvements in safety and cost efficiency... leaving teamsters to an uncertain fate.
- The combination of natural language recognition, artificial intelligence, and machine learning could eliminate the need for a lot of call center jobs.
- Online home sales services like Homie.com could eliminate the need to pay a realtor's 6% commission.
- Robotic bricklayer machines can now do the work of many human masons.
The net effect of all this change is that there simply are no more "secure" jobs. Most people will simply need to be able to reinvent themselves in order to survive. And they'll likely have to do it more than once within their working lives.
So what are the options for people faced with an imposed self-reinvention? They might turn a hobby into a business. They could possibly learn a new skill. They might have to go back to school. Or they might simply take an entry level job in a new space.
My argument here is that in all of the options listed above, and in many others not listed, local librarians have help to offer. Local librarians can help by curating locally relevant information. Let me say that again for emphasis: Local librarians can help by curating locally relevant information. Here are some examples of what I mean:
- Local librarians can help identify and provide access to the best available online job skills training or test preparation options.
- They can help people navigate an application process for a major employer, a school, a grant, or even a government assistance program.
- They can provide critical guidance for someone starting a new business and needing help understanding licensing procedures, tax rules, or identifying a startup mentor.
- They can help a seeker identify the most appropriate job search info, whether that be through state and local agencies, online tools, job fair events, local contacts, or even local volunteer job mentors.
I would go so far as to say that there is no institution so well situated to provide this kind of help as is a local library. The library already has a local presence, it has the needed information at hand, its curriculum is infinitely flexible, and it has a staff that specializes in finding stuff out. If a patron walked into almost any library in the country and said, "I need help identifying test prep options for X test" I suspect the reference staff would rise to the occasion and help that patron find what he needs.
The only missing piece is making this available help truly accessible to the people that need it most. To make their resources truly accessible, libraries must help people see the connection between their own real-world problems and the information resources the library offers. When a local factory shuts down, or the local oil industry slows, the library needs to proactively advertise "Real Options for Displaced Workers", not just put a link the the job search "database" on the website. Without a bit of hand-holding support, many people simply won't make the connection between their own needs and what the library has to offer.
When presenting that hand holding support, keep in mind that information is most accessible when:
- It is presented in small chunks rather than one long stream.
- It is presented in a logical sequence.
- It includes visual elements (not just text).
- It is always available (for review purposes as well as schedule flexibility)
The delivery solution that best matches all the above criteria is a locally created (or locally adapted) online tutorial. This is the surprising and dramatic opportunity I see for libraries. Libraries can create locally informed online tutorials to help people walk through the difficult process of reinventing themselves. Consider the following potential tutorial topics:
- 10 career options when you're starting over at age 50
- How to learn basic computer skills without going back to school
- How the hiring process works at 10 top local employers
- 5 things returning students need to know about student loans
I can't think of very many things that would more powerfully highlight the value of a modern library. I can't think of many things that would more dramatically drive political support for libraries. I can't think of much that would better deliver on the promise of libraries as education.
What do you think?