Library Strategic Foresight Report Overview

The main purpose was to explore and illuminate possible future outcomes for libraries, including considering what a preferred future might look like. Informed by research and Library stakeholders, a preferred future vision can help inform the Library’s current strategic planning work.

A balanced view of the future included the Library and its stakeholders exploring the questions: “Where do we want to go?” and “What do we need to avoid?”

A summary of what was explored and identified in this process can be found below.

Input from Internal and External Stakeholders

To inform this visioning exercise, the Library engaged internal and external stakeholders in workshops, interviews and surveys. Participants included Library staff, the Library Board of Trustees, the Library’s Friends’ and Foundation partners, and partners serving many Seattle communities. Partner participation included organizations such as Atlantic Street Center, CID Coalition, Daybreak Star, East African Community Services, El Centro de la Raza, Gender Justice League, Low Income Housing Institute, Mary’s Place, Refugee Women’s Alliance, Solid Ground, Wa Na Wari and more. Over 50 organizations were contacted to participate.

Chief Librarian Tom Fay also hosted four in-person Community Conversations in Library branches to hear directly from Library patrons about their future needs and interests.

Exploring the Future of the Library

The project used Houston’s Framework Foresight method to explore the future with the Library and its internal and external stakeholders.

The principal components of a strategic foresight project include:

  • Framing: The Library started by asking: “What are the potential futures of libraries? And what can we do to achieve a preferred future?” The Library selected an approximate 10-year projection into 2032, a standard timeframe for futurist projects.

  • Scanning: This step involves collecting and analyzing “signals of change” found in news or journal articles, blog posts, videos, reports, etc. across various domains related to the Library.

  • Research: Scanning is then supplemented by additional research, which for this project included a current assessment of the present; identification of library and information trends already underway; identification of current or emerging controversies related to library work; identification of already announced plans by key stakeholders; and interviews with internal and external stakeholders. An online survey was used to gather information from stakeholders who could not attend in person.

  • Drivers of change: From the learnings gathered in the scanning and research phrase, key “drivers of change” that have potentially significant influence on the future are identified. Drivers are powerful trends that are shaping the future of libraries. Here are the key drivers identified through the scanning and research phase that are expected to impact libraries into the future.

    • Safety and security in library spaces

    • Stable and sustainable funding

    • Culture wars, information control and intellectual freedom concerns

    • Staffing and workforce development for future work

    • Social services and reducing opportunity gaps

    • Automation and digitization

    • Reaching people and communities effectively

    • Serving as a community connector

    • Climate change and climate resiliency

    • Evolving governance models

    • New wave of technology, such as artificial intelligence

    • Lending items beyond books and information

    • Declining local news and archival resources in the community driving misinformation

  • Exploring scenarios: Houston Foresight then presented the Library and its stakeholders with future scenarios in which several of these drivers of change present key challenges to the Library. Through review and discussion of these scenarios, Library staff and stakeholders identified what the likely implications and impacts of those scenarios might be and how the Library might best respond to them.

    The goal in exploring scenarios is not necessarily to accurately predict the future, but to create a picture in the participants’ mind of what the future might look like so the SPL can be better prepared and more resilient. Six potential future scenarios were presented to the Library in order to identify strategic issues and options for responding, including a “preferred” future the Library can continue to shape and work toward.

  • Recommendations: After these exercises, the project focus shifts from “what might happen to us in the future?” to “what might the Library do about it?” Recommendations for next steps were made available to the Library in several ways:

    • Stakeholder participants in foresight workshops brainstormed potential implications or impacts from the scenarios presented to them by Houston Foresight, which included everything from Library programs and services to collections and operations. One example of a potential future implication: The Library is likely to see reduced buying power for collections, particularly for e-books and e-audiobooks, due to increasing inflation, publisher pricing practices and increasing demand on Library resources.

    • Strategic issues were identified from those implications and impacts that will be critical for the Library to address in the future and could present as threats or opportunities. These include issues such as funding, staffing, use of physical space, security concerns, culture wars, increased community need, and more. Here, community members emphasized that the Library should pay attention to its communications, how it measures success, and how it can meet specific and diverse community needs.

    • Potential response options were then explored by workshop participants for these strategic issues. For example, if sustainable funding becomes an issue for the Library, then prioritizing what services the Library delivers is critical. If virtual spaces continue to be experienced as unsafe and riddled with misinformation, perhaps the Library can play a role as a virtual refuge. If community needs continue to increase and become more fragmented, perhaps a hyperlocal neighborhood approach to programs, services and collections should be explored.

    • An integrated strategic approach to these converging issues was then identified. The Houston Foresight team recommended the Library identify common elements across all the scenarios presented and focus on those elements in strategic planning. The elements that were present and important in every conversation about the Library’s future included:

      • Equity

      • Staffing

      • Use of space

      • Prioritization

      • Localization

      • Digital proficiency

      • Partnerships

    • The foresight process highlighted the ongoing need for the Library to monitor developments and interesting advancements in the field that are not yet impacting library work in order to consider the future impacts on library work and community.

What might a preferred future look like?

Informed by research and feedback from Library stakeholders, a “preferred future” scenario was developed by Houston Foresight to explore the additional element of what Library stakeholders would like to see happen in the future.

In this scenario, the Library not only doubles down on its core service of providing information, collections and recreational materials, but it also excels at guiding other organizations to better understand and leverage Library resources to their benefit, it champions equity and inclusiveness in authentic and impactful ways, it empowers community members to design and run community programming, and it is on the forefront of green sustainability practices.

Some key challenges noted for the Library to consider included gaining community consensus on a future vision or navigating potential disagreement; developing new partnerships or re-exploring existing partnerships; preparing the organization for readiness and capacity to achieve a future vision; and assessing how a future vision would be applied to the Library’s public-facing services.

The Library will be exploring the takeaways from this visioning exercise, including all of the stakeholder and community feedback gathered in 2022 and that will be gathered in 2023, to inform a new long-term strategic plan.

The following text is how Houston Foresight imagined and presented the Library’s “preferred future” based on the research they conducted:

We are living in a new golden age of knowledge, and The Seattle Public Library is at the forefront of this movement. After years of being stretched thin, providing social services that Library staff were ill-equipped to provide, and working miracles with ever-shrinking budgets, a realization was made that the Library was not being used as it was designed or as the staff and community desired.

A period of intense partnership creation began with city, state, federal, and private organizations, to help reimagine the Library … and it worked. This allowed the Library to return to its roots as the guide to the world of information. Library staff were able to return to connecting patrons with information and began acting as a liaison to the communities they serve. Information referrals included book knowledge, life knowledge and life assistance through referrals to the Library partner organizations. These partner organizations now ensure patrons are served by people qualified to handle whatever issues they may have. Now, when a patron goes to any Library branch, they can access various support agencies, from the Seattle Human Services department to Seattle Parks and Recreation to Seattle Housing Authority, all co-located in the same areas as Library staff. This co-location effort, known as the Seattle Community Ecosystem Initiative, created a symbiotic relationship between the Library and outside agencies, as well as between community members and the Library, creating a sprawling community support hub.

The Library is the center of the community. As such, there are more branches of the Library than ever. These “right-sized” branches allow community members to never be more than a short distance from Library services. Hyperlocal branches have a small footprint that can be adapted to the needs of the community, but bring with them nearly everything one would expect from a large library, due in part to SPL’s adoption of the newest quantum and cloud computing to access their extensive digital collections.

The Library maintains a balance of digital and physical collections that are curated by staff with constant input from the community. Much of the Library’s digital media is stored through the robust InterPlanetary File System, a decentralized storage pool, and accessed through blockchains for ease of sharing, persistent availability, and chain of custody of all materials. All collection use is completely automated, freeing staff to handle other business and helping community members find what they truly need when they need it.

Speaking of staff, in this future, the Library was recently voted the best place to work in the United States, and librarians in general are now in the top 10 of fastest growing professions and job satisfaction. The Library maintains a robust, dedicated workforce, and many of the workers seen in branches are also community members of the neighborhoods they serve -- one reason the Library engages more fully and collaborates on localized services and programs. All programming, for example, is not only chosen but in many cases run entirely by the community. This collaborative development style ensures branches are providing programming the community needs while giving ownership to the people. Knowledge is not simply gained from media or Library staff either, but through co-op style learning from members of the community, many of whom are industry leaders with years of experience and expertise. In this way, the Library is a liaison to the community, assisting as needed, and a venue for hosting programming and maker spaces that increase the Library’s support of the community. The Library also partners with multiple large-scale Artificial Intelligence solutions to handle many repetitive functions, such as collection inventory and data analysis, using machine learning to dynamically adjust collections held for the ever-changing community needs while keeping budgets in mind.

Collections cost money, and one as extensive as the Library’s is a major budgetary line item. There are still levies used for the Library, but they are relied upon less. Libraries in general have seen great growth in both federal and state funding through various education acts that have been passed. Additionally, tax laws that made educational institutions better tax shelters have contributed greatly to the financial success of libraries across the nation. The United Library Consortium asked the Library to pilot a program for a free Public Library University, a self-paced learning program that provides a Bachelor of Arts in Civic Responsibility. This was worked on for many years by the Library after years of disinformation and distrust that grew in society. Seattle was at the forefront of the information wars, and the Library became a trusted voice through its fact-checking abilities. Even today, patrons can find everything from community discussions over culturally relevant topics of the day, all the way up to national political debates happening at the Library. The Library offers moderation services and leverages its internally developed AI to fact-check statements of fact in real-time.

As charged as political and social debates can become, the Library is renowned as one of the safest places in the city for people of all ages, cultures and abilities. The Library is designed with the most advanced physical security systems available, but the biggest security measure is that the community holds the Library in such high regard that there is very little need for guards or other overt security. If a patron cannot make it to the Library, most functions are available online. Even much of the programming can be accessed through the national library metaverse. It is not uncommon to see avatars taking part in debates and social discourse at libraries across the nation, integrating with physical groups. Along with the Library being physically secure, it is also digitally one of the most secure networks around. The Library partnered with the University of Washington to be a cybersecurity proving ground. Since the partnership began, there has not been a major breach of Library networks, earning SPL numerous Cybersecurity Excellence Awards and security certifications.

No one can be turned away from accessing the knowledge the Library provides. Aside from digital collections, Library patrons are utilizing Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality to access programming specifically designed by industry experts in a myriad of topics. From a master class with a Michelin-starred restaurant chef to learning automotive mechanics with a NASCAR pit crew, all can be done through the Library’s neighborhood branches.

All this tech and many branches must mean the Library has a large carbon footprint. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Library is leading the way in green initiatives. It is transitioning the EV fleet to the newest hydrogen-powered vehicles and working to achieve Certified Living Building status through the International Living Future Institute. Library buildings are becoming completely carbon negative. Additionally, Library staff works to model green initiatives in communities and is seeing great strides in sustainability and eco-consciousness. Patrons often see Library-sponsored workshops with experts in the field, as well as procuring and distributing materials needed by the community to support new environmental policies.

A hyperlocal approach allows the Library to serve as a central hub to all Seattle neighborhoods. It is there to provide information, knowledge and support the community’s quality of life.