The future in context: how librarians can think like futurists.

Author:Fenner, John
 
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It is no secret that our busy schedules can keep us from seeing the forest for the trees. Often we are too much focused on present problems, and too committed to and involved with current processes, to see how we may better prepare for the future.

Librarians, like many others, face two types of pressures. The first is: "Do the same with less". As the pressures caused by time and resource limitations grow, our tendency is to focus more and more on smaller and smaller operations, the minutiae of daily work life. We may defend this tendency by calling it "specialization". Secondly, we are under pressure to "Do more with the same." As we strive to perform at greater levels of productivity and efficiency, the tendency is to focus on the immediately obvious and on repetitive operations. Subtleties do not survive time limitations, and neither does our ability to think about the future and make sense of it.

In the normal course of events, something that could be called the "past push" process is operational. We "push" the familiar into the future, seeing things we now know and do as processes that will continue, perhaps indefinitely. We are prone to push current knowledge and procedures into the future, rather than to see how the future may pull something out of us. We have no mechanism to recognize the lost opportunities that are invisible in "past push" processes, and we continue to measure library performance largely against the status quo. From a societal and organizational perspective, this will have significant deleterious effects on libraries and on the library profession.

The future should be a pull and not a push. To work on a "future pull" basis, we must abandon or at least reduce our possessiveness and pride in the strengths, learning, and personal history we have with current processes and procedures. That can be very difficult to do. We have invested much of our time and talent into achieving the status quo, and our normal tendency is to let "future pull" processes happen on random occasions, by accident. We then think of these serendipitous accidents as insight or creativity.

Librarians need to adopt "future pull" thinking in order to forecast the future in a realistic way, and prepare ourselves and our libraries for it. We need to adopt some of the techniques used by futurists to identify problems, focus thinking, and plan future directions. Following is one simple process for examining future possibilities. It is an exercise designed to encourage lateral and creative thinking, and can be carried out individually or in group brainstorming sessions.

First, choose a small set of topics or categories. Choosing a limited set of topics will help to focus thinking in defined areas without restricting possibilities. The topics will bring events, processes, trends and situations to mind. Try choosing different categories on different days, to encourage creativity. For example, one set of categories that could stimulate "future pull" thinking could include "users and services, personnel and management, and resources". Brainstorm by projecting each of these categories into a library setting some years into the future. Another set could consist only of adjectives: "societal, economic, political, technological". Forecast the future by considering the impact of societal, economic, political and technological change on libraries. To begin, focus entirely on desired states of development.

Additional sets of terms can be found in the appendix. The list is not meant to be definitive or exhaustive, but simply to indicate the many possible ways to make predictions and place libraries in the context of the future. Additions or deletions can be made to these sets of terms. Choose additional words, re-word what is not useful, and develop other, new sets of terms.

Some rules for inventing sets and categories are:

* Any set, no matter how bizarre, can be a fruitful source of ideas.

* Try using positive and negative terms in the same set.

* Try using nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs as sets themselves, or combine them to make sets.

* Try to avoid using a simple dichotomy. Add a third or fourth term to a pair, no matter if it seems unrelated, to make creative breakthroughs.

* In making lists, do not be too much concerned with compatibility of terms.

This brainstorming technique creates a process for seeing the total picture and all its cross-feeding relationships. To be sure various implications are covered, it will be necessary to spend some time investigating subcategories. For example, the subcategories of events, processes, products, services, trends, and situations could be considered in turn under each term in a set.

Some answers and forecasts may seem obvious and some may seem far-fetched; however, listing them all together helps us see that the future is not composed of individual trends but of the interplay among trends and circumstances. It is in this interplay that we discover synergies, and experience the dynamism of social, economic, political, and technological processes.

As an example of "future pull" thinking in operation, the remainder of this article illustrates the result of considering some library trends under one three-part categorization: users and services, personnel and management, and resources.

Category One: Users and...

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