LR2050: The future of the library – Arkansas Times

For our November print issue, we asked local experts to gaze into the crystal ball to predict what life in the Little Rock metro area will be like in 2050.
In “The Library Book,” journalist Susan Orlean evokes the public library’s identity as “the people’s university” and praises public libraries as “sanctuaries,” “town squares” and “community centers.” To those of us who spend a lot of time at one of the Central Arkansas Library System’s 15 branches, the description resonates. The library is here for all of us, whether we’re learning a skill, finding new ways to participate in civic life, looking to join a group based on a shared interest or seeking a place just to be ourselves.
I don’t expect this to change any time over the next three decades — or over the next century. Our community trusts and relies on the public library to promote learning. To ensure access to information for all. To enhance quality of life. And to make sure our resources are available to the widest number of people possible.
What will evolve is how we deliver those resources. In 2019, our library board approved a new strategic plan focused on extending our connections within the community — for CALS, that means 344,553 people in Pulaski and Perry counties, or about 11% of Arkansans.
As a result of the plan, we hired two outreach liaisons to develop community partnerships and head outside of our buildings with books, programming and information. One of those liaisons, Jessica McDaniel, recently summed up CALS’s approach. “Long gone are the days where the library is just a quiet place to read.” (Though it’s that, too, and our staff is always happy to make a book recommendation and help you find a cozy corner to read.) Ultimately, McDaniel says, the outreach team aims to “empower potential patrons to have a feeling of ownership in their library system.”
What does ownership in a library system mean, and how will that change by 2050? The answer is that our services will evolve as our community’s needs evolve.
Our strategic plan gives special attention to increasing engagement with and services to underserved patrons. That means we focus a lot of energy on bridging the digital divide, and working to connect community members with internet access, devices and the knowledge they need to navigate technology in their daily lives. We’re invested in providing technical assistance: helping patrons polish resumes, apply for benefits and write business plans. Meeting the needs of our youngest patrons and their families is a top priority, and CALS staff have worked to serve hundreds of thousands of free meals to kids, tutor students in math and create engaging programs for youth, including thousands of grab-and-go activity kits during the pandemic. I’ve long felt that the library is the original co-working space, but now we’re leaning in to that identity and purchasing tools to make our conference rooms more useful for today’s worker who may need to host virtual or hybrid meetings.
I can envision a time when CALS is offering an even more ambitious range of community-based services. When our branches host year-round enrichment programs for kids, like afterschool programs and spring break and summer camps. (We’ll be piloting a few such camps at four branches next year.) When we employ full-time chefs at our branches’ teaching kitchens to prepare free meals from produce grown in library gardens. (You can already visit the little free farm stand distributing produce from the garden at our Children’s Library & Learning Center on W. 10th Street.) When you can get a check-up at your branch in addition to checking out a book. (CALS employs a licensed social worker, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we also employ a nurse and other health care workers.) When our system is powered entirely on renewable energy. (We recently broke ground on a new solar array.) I know for sure that our collections development department will adapt to changing tastes and technologies and purchase books, movies and other materials in whatever format the public would like to enjoy. (My hunch is that some segment of the population will always prefer physical copies.)
It is exciting to contemplate the CALS of the future, though as an employee of the library, I find most of my inspiration in dreaming about how we can be of help today. In a recent patron survey, respondents had high praise for our programs and collections. Most of all, they emphasized the kind and welcoming atmosphere at CALS. I am confident that this feature of our service will remain constant, whatever the public library’s version of “sanctuary,” “town square,” and “community center” looks like in 2050. If you come to CALS, no matter who you are, you will always be welcome.
Eliza Borné is director of development at the Central Arkansas Library System.
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