Digital Transformation | Leadership | Strategy | Consulting | Speaking | Training - Adelaide, South Australia
libraries of the future

Today I delivered a 25-minute presentation, entitled The Library of 2019, to the quarterly meeting of the association of public libraries in South Australia, PLSA. The presentation took place at the Hetzel Lecture Theatre at the State Library of South Australia.

You can access the Prezi slide deck that accompanied the presentation right here…

The full text of the presentation is below:


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  

I’ve crossed paths with many of you in the short time that I have been with PLS, but for those that I’ve yet to meet: My name is Clayton Wehner and I’ve been engaged by PLS to assist with the development of a ‘digital strategy’ for the library network.

The intent is to build further on the ‘Tomorrow’s Libraries’ strategy document and it’s my role to produce a detailed plan that operationalises the high level digital directions identified in this document.

But today, I’ve been given 20 minutes to speak to you. I apologise in advance if I speak fast – I’ve got a lot to say and only a short time in which to say it.

To start with, I’m going to give you my thoughts around the future of the library as an institution, and then I’m going to talk more specifically about what the library might look like in 2019 – hopefully I can shoehorn all of that into 20 minutes.


Firstly, it’s important to understand the environmental context in which we are operating.

We’re perhaps in the midst of its most tumultuous era of social, economic, environmental and technological change EVER. No business or organisation – the library included – is immune to these changes. Organisations that wish to prosper must embrace change and constantly reinvent themselves to remain relevant to their customers. Organisations that stick their head in the sand are destined to fail.



So, to make sure that we remain relevant in a changing world, it’s critical that we have a strategy.  A plan for the future.  An understanding of where we will be in 3 years time. Where we will be in 5 years time – and beyond.

Now, I could go ahead and produce the best written digital strategy ever but if the cultural foundations aren’t right, then, quite simply, that strategy will fail.  Peter Drucker – being librarians, you guys probably know who he is – famously said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

To succeed, the most fundamental of changes will NOT be increased internet bandwidth to your libraries, it won’t be a new whizzbang online catalogue; it won’t be a new gadget, a new gizmo – to succeed, the MOST fundamental change will be in the underlying organisational culture and collective mindset of the library.

And this is where the heart of the issue lies….


If I were asked to list just ONE WORD to characterise libraries, it wouldn’t be this one….BOOKS


The fact is that ‘books’ are merely TOOLS to achieve something deeper.  And that word is….COMMUNITY

It might seem counter-intuitive, but you’re NOT in the book business – libraries are NOT about books; books and libraries are just TOOLS to build community.  

Your role as librarians is not to lend out books; it’s to be society’s glue; to foster the growth of your library community through whatever mechanism is available to you.  And books are just ONE mechanism that allows you to do that.


Now I think I’m preaching to the converted.  The Executive Summary in this document says:

The future of public libraries lies in the value they create from the nexus of people, place, knowledge and technology to create a platform for learning participation, creativity , innovation and well-being.

The word ‘books’ is nowhere to be seen in this statement, which is precisely the way it should be.

Yet I am reliably informed – and I must admit to not having met any of these people –  we do have some librarians that remain mired in the old thinking. Librarians who cling protectively to their collections, afraid to relinquish their grip on the past.  

And perhaps more critically, we still answer to misinformed council managers and financial decision makers who believe that libraries are just a repository of books and nothing more  .

For those who think that libraries should just stick to books, consider this:


The way that people are consuming content is changing.

  • Physical media
  • Video rental stores
  • CD/DVD retailers
  • Bookstores
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Free to air television channels
  • Pay TV


At the same time our core group members are getting older.

The average age of a member who borrowed a physical item from a Marion library in January this year is 51.

The average life expectancy of an Australian male is just over 80

In 30 years, as sad as it is, many of these people will be pushing up daisies.  The people who the libraries barely touch now – the 20-50 year olds – will have moved into the top age bracket – the age bracket which has traditionally delivered the biggest number of library users.


And these younger generations belong to a ‘NEW CONTENT PARADIGM’ – they’re consuming more content than ever before, but they are consuming in new places, cheaply, instantaneously and on demand whenever they want it:

  • Catch up TV – ABC iView
  • YouTube
  • Streaming services Netflix, Stan, Presto
  • Online music iTunes, Spotify and Google Play Music
  • eBooks on the Amazon Kindle
  • Torrenting

The simple fact is that the library is competing against these guys when it comes to content delivery.  And they typically do it better than we do.


Another trend that we’re seeing is the rise of the intermediary. The ‘owners’ aren’t necessarily the ones that generate value for consumers. Here are some examples

  • Uber – world’s biggest taxi service owns no taxis
  • Airbnb – world’s biggest accommodation service owns no hotels
  • Skype – world’s most popular phone service owns no infrastructure
  • Facebook – world’s most popular media source creates no content
  • Apple/Google – world’s largest software vendors don’t write the apps

These providers aren’t worried about the INVENTORY – they’re focused on delivering the best user journeys, the slickest of interfaces, the most effortless and frictionless customer experiences.  People use these services because transactions are simple, they are easy to use and they just work.  There’s no fuss, no screwing around.


So why shouldn’t the library adopt this intermediary thinking? Rather than just protectively ‘owning’ our collections, shouldn’t the library seek to deliver value by connecting people with the most appropriate content and resources, regardless of where that content exists.

In this way, the librarian is the curator, the connector, the facilitator and the teacher. The librarian is a person who fosters learning, engagement and excitement through diverse programs, makerspaces, coding clubs, community groups, local history initiatives, digital literacy training etc etc etc.  The librarian is no longer just a storeperson overseeing a collection of dead books.

So, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about digital…


Well, the good news is that the librarian’s role as curator, connector, facilitator and teacher is greatly enhanced by a host of new digital technologies that they have at their disposal.

Just like books, digital technologies are tools that can be used to develop community. And digital tools offer advantages that books don’t: they’re considered cool – particularly by the younger generations that have been so elusive to libraries; they’re pervasive throughout society and can achieve significant reach; they’re cheap and they’re generally easy to use.

So I’m now going to switch into my crystal ball mode.  Let’s have a look at what the library of 2019 might look like and how digital technology can help with its community-building responsibilities.


It’s no surprise that as as time goes on, we are going to see increased use in remote services and a tipping of the balance in favour of digital content, away from physical content.

Our increasing array of digital content enables the library to maintain a relationship with members who never have to set foot physically in the library.  This suits many people in the 20-50 age bracket who have so little time to spend visiting a library and enables us to ‘compete’ with some of those content services that I spoke about earlier on, particularly as it’s hard to quibble over the price of our service – ie. FREE.

So back in 2016 we decided to make it easier for new users to join the library by implementing remote on-boarding.  How does it work? Well, if you want to become a member of the library, you simply fill in a quick form on the library website and you take a photo of your driver’s licence or other ID card using your phone’s camera. Your application is then processed automatically and in real-time by cross checking the applicant’s ID with the the state drivers licence database.

Once confirmed, the application is approved and an electronic membership is issued. Rather than issuing a physical card to the new member, the member’s mobile phone becomes the user’s electronic membership card.

This new on-boarding method was great for members and it also removed a good deal of administrative rigmarole for our librarians, enabling them to focus on their principal community building responsibilities.


Armed with their new electronic membership card in their mobile phone, the member can now use their phone to borrow books at the library – no need to carry a plastic membership card.  In fact, in 2019 nobody carries a wallet or a purse anymore – all of our credit cards, drivers licences, membership cards and loyalty cards are now completely embedded in our phones.  

And not only is it not necessary to carry a library membership card, but it’s also not necessary to speak to a librarian during the browsing and borrowing experience – our mobile phones will talk directly to beacon ‘hot spots’ in the library and the RFID tags on the books, allowing the member to access additional rich content as they walk around the library – as well as enabling the book to be checked out for borrowing.

Again, this serves to save the librarian time, allowing them to get on with their real job of building community..


Speaking of mobile phones, by now you’ve guessed that they’re a pretty key component of our digital plans going forward.

In 2015, 76% of all Australians had a mobile phone and this number was continuing to grow. By 2019, there’s barely an Australian that doesn’t have a internet-connected smartphone.

So it stands to reason, that the library chose to invest in its mobile user interfaces.  Back in 2016, it quickly realised that its portfolio of 82 library catalogue websites were not built from a ‘mobile first’ perspective to reflect the societal shift from ‘desktop’ internet consumption to ‘mobile’ internet consumption.  

So the library chose to take the plunge and implement a SINGLE ‘One Library’ website and catalogue for the entire state.  The website is fully responsive and renders appropriately on all devices, regardless of screen size, allowing users to transact with the library whilst they’re on the bus, on the couch or on their desktop computer.  

The fact that the network now only operates a single website – instead of 82 – enables the library to save valuable staff time; to centralise all of its online resources in one place; and to build an authoritative single source of content.


Speaking of websites, the library also chose to shift its core thinking in relation to its online presence. For the first time, it truly put itself into the shoes of the user, it adopted a ‘design thinking’ approach when developing its user interfaces, and it sought to improve the user experience at every juncture.

It did this because users were confused and frustrated – What are all these brand names? Who is Lynda? Is OverDrive a new vehicle propulsion system?  Why can’t the library provide a simple user interface like Netflix? Why do I have to log on separately each time I access a digital resource?  Why do I have to jump through all these hoops?

You will be pleased to know that the library of 2019 provides an integrated experience where the user is placed at the centre of the library universe. All content is accessible in the one place, through an easy-to-use catalogue interface that has a reliable universal search function.

The catalogue allows the user to access electronic content directly without the need to be sent off to a third party website.

The interface is personalised – in much the same way that we expect online retailers to deliver personalised product recommendations (think Amazon’s ‘You Might Also Like’ function). The website recognises you when you arrive at the website and displays content that is appropriate to you.  

If you’ve borrowed a Tim Winton book before, it will display other Tim Winton titles that you haven’t read right there on the home page – you’ve read Breath, great, why not try Cloudstreet and Dirt Music next.

And the search shows results cleverly so that your book isn’t sent from Ceduna, when there’s a perfectly good copy at the library just around the corner.


To aid in personalisation and customer relationship management (or CRM), the library of 2019 will use the vast amounts of data that it has at its disposal much more effectively.  

You may have heard the term ‘big data’. Big data is the collection, storage and manipulation of data, from a multitude of sources, to enable an organisations to deliver more targeted offerings to individual customers. Through new predictive technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, organisations are becoming more sophisticated at delivering cues to the consumer at the precise moment that they’re ready to transact.

I foresee a day when predictive technologies will automatically send me my next true crime book at the very moment I finish reading the previous book.  Big data can deliver the insights that enable us to do that.

Whilst this is some way off yet, the library has realised that it should, at the very least, be leveraging its 900,000 strong database through regular messaging.  This way it can rekindle its relationship with lapsed members, and market its events and new digital services to its regular users.


Let’s face it, the library hasn’t been very good at telling its own story and marketing the fantastic benefits that the library provides to the community.  And the fact is: the library DOES have inspiring stories to tell – why not talk about them?  And I’m not just talking about promoting your next event, I’m talking about relating the ‘people’ stories that you encounter everyday in the library.

As a library user, I want to know about the great work that is being done on the ‘Digital Diggers’ program at the Campbelltown library; or the location-based mobile app that the guys at Charles Sturt are currently trialling; or the cool robotics activities that the guys at Port Adelaide Enfield are doing; or the GarageBand sessions being run at Unley.  These are stories worth telling.

And digital channels are great at disseminating these stories – social media, email marketing, online video, blogs, wikis – all of these tools enable you to spread the word widely.  And when these stories are spread online, they are indexed by search engines and the content remains discoverable well into the future, continually bringing new visitors in the fold.

A quick word on social media…

You will be pleased to know that by 2019, libraries across SA will have convinced their councils to allow them to have their own Facebook Page – I know that some of you haven’t got that far yet!

Users of Facebook, Australia’s most favoured social network, now spend the equivalent of a full working day on Facebook each week, averaging 8.5 hours on the site. If we’re not engaging with people in places like this, we’re missing a great opportunity.

And that’s not to mention other potential social channels such as Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Foursquare and the list goes on.


Finally, let’s return to the library building. The library as a physical building is not going to go away anytime soon, but it will look a little different in 2019.  

The library won’t be chock full of physical books.  CDs and DVDs no longer take up valuable floorspace. There is an emphasis on providing ‘spaces’, rather than trying to squeeze as many bookshelves as possible into the four walls.

In 2019, the physical and the digital experience will be interwoven.  This is what retailers call the omnichannel experience – where the traditional physical experience is enriched with a digital experience so that the customer’s experience is seamless across channels. Think RFID checkout scanners, digital kiosks and touchscreens, and location-based mobile phone apps.

We’re going to see much more sophisticated kit that comes under the banner of the ‘Internet of Things’ – personal wearables, smart watches, smart glasses, virtual reality goggles, augmented reality apps, beacons, fingerprint scanners and other biometric tools, wayfinding and location-based messaging and alerts.

But to facilitate all of this increased digital activity, the library of 2019 will have blisteringly fast internet connectivity – in 2019 you won’t receive any complaints about failed downloads or a lack of speed!


So we have exciting times ahead!  The library of 2019 will look different to what it does today.  But the most fundamental change will not be some new groundbreaking gadget, or some whizzbang app or piece of software.  The most fundamental change will be in the thinking of the library, its people, its culture, the role of the librarian and its emphasis on ‘community’ – If the library is to remain relevant well into the future, its collective mindset will need to change to address the wider changes in society. Books and digital technology are great tools to help it succeed in its mission – but they are not the end in themselves.

I leave you with this from Seth Godin, which was written back in 2011:

Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending the library as a warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.


Now, I’d like to hear from you about your thoughts: please get in touch and I’d love to have a chat about your ideas, your challenges and your aspirations in the digital space.

10 thoughts on “The Library of the Future: Presentation to Public Libraries SA”

  1. A very impressive pitch Clayton. I look forward to being back in Adelaide in 2017 and enjoying the facilities and amenity of a much revitalised local Norwood library

  2. Wow! Thanks for putting the full transcript up Clayton – it was great meeting you on Monday, and this post definitely makes up for me missing you speak in the afternoon. I’m loving being about to work in the realm of digital learning at my library – digital learning for me as much as for the people attending the eBook workshops I facilitate, or the MakerSpace activities that I deliver to younger customers. Anyone up for this challenge in remaining agile in this sector is going to, like me, have a blast learning and playing as they teach new skills and foster new connections.

  3. A nice comment from one of our regional librarians:

    It was great to meet you on Monday and I really enjoyed your presentation. I felt that it was an accurate overview on the role that libraries play in bringing the community together. You put into words what many librarians already know but need to communicate to management, elected members, and (some) library staff, to educate them on the importance of libraries within the community. Your presentation was pretty close to a ‘hallelujah’ moment for me and I will be sharing your presentation with my staff at our next team meeting.

    1. Just a quick follow up note. I showed your presentation to staff at our last team meeting and they were also very impressed. Thank you!

        1. Yes I saw the first one come through and had a good read through the articles. I will be encouraging my staff to join up to the mailing list too. Not sure if I missed one from last week though…

  4. Yay! Good paper, Clayton, particularly the first part. You are absolutely correct in identifying that libraries are not in the book business. However, I think that it is many, not some, “librarians that remain mired in the old thinking. Librarians who cling protectively to their collections, afraid to relinquish their grip on the past”. The biggest threat to libraries, as you indicate, is that we do not change culturally. While we need to be embracing the technologies that you highlight, we need also be looking at our network’s business model and relinquishing ideas, processes, strategies and rules that are linked to the past. Such things as separate catalogues, separate purchasing, the 90 day rule, home library prioritisation, etc are holding us back in an environment where we should be and could be moving materials between libraries and customers at a much, much, much quicker rate than we currently are. Our network should be using technologies to reduce duplication, improve speed and the user experience and enable library staff, as you say, “to focus on their principal community building responsibilities”. Let’s hope eveyone is listening.

  5. Thanks for the nice comments Ian. Yes, the cultural and organisational change associated with a new digital strategy is the critical piece of the puzzle – culture eats strategy for breakfast. I’m buoyed by the enthusiasm I’ve seen so far – everybody that I have spoken to has been very enthusiastic about digital and indicated their desire to move with the times. I hope that the enthusiasm flows through to the implementation phase of the strategy.

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