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Creating the Library of Tomorrow from the Ground Up

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Flickr:Paul Lowry

By Laurie Putnam

The public library hums. Readers peruse e-books and job seekers attend workshops. Teens organize poetry slams, and students work together on school assignments. Librarians plan programs, help researchers online, and digitize collections of all shapes and sizes. All around the world, today’s libraries are serving their communities in new and different ways.

But is that enough for tomorrow’s library?

We do need to promote modern, relevant services in our current libraries, says Rob Bruijnzeels, founder and rector of the Dutch LibrarySchool. For the long term, however, Bruijnzeels believes that libraries need more than modernizing: They need rethinking, and they need librarians who think differently.

“We can’t just refresh the library of the twentieth century anymore. There is so much more going on now,” says Bruijnzeels. “We think we need a new kind of public library, a new process for public libraries. We need something completely different. What it is, we don’t know for sure, but let’s have a try.”

To give us a collective try, Bruijnzeels started the LibrarySchool, a new university program designed to educate a new wave of librarians. It’s both an academic program and an incubator of ideas.

While no one knows quite what the library of the 21st century will be, the faculty and students at the LibrarySchool aren’t afraid to experiment. In times of radical change, they believe, old paradigms no longer apply. Rapid cultural, technological, and societal shifts are changing how people consume information and use libraries.


In the Netherlands, dramatic budget cuts have threatened the closure of one-third of the nation’s public libraries. And with a large percentage of librarians nearing retirement, a significant shift in the makeup of library staff is imminent. Many in the library community are looking for new ideas.

The LibrarySchool aims to cultivate those ideas. Several years in the making, shaped by an intensive pilot program that helped define the curriculum, the LibrarySchool opened in September 2011. A collaborative program of the Netherlands Open University and major Dutch public libraries, the LibrarySchool is supported by corporate sponsorships.

Dutch librarians are typically trained in undergraduate programs, and until now, no Dutch university offered a master’s degree that focused on public libraries. Offering a new opportunity for advanced study, the LibrarySchool is designed as a training ground for innovators. It’s a place where people who currently work in libraries can look at the broader context of culture, technology, and society, and see new roles for the library. A place where they can create and share ideas, try them out in their libraries, and encourage others to do the same.

Librarianship “used to be about building your collection, cataloging it, and making it accessible to people,” says Bruijnzeels. “Today those three things are completely different from when most library schools were designed. In our school we want to look for a new process, which is about imagination, technology, and participation. These days the public library might start with the books on the shelves and the e-books, but it’s really about content and context and meaning and sharing information, which are completely different processes from what we learned 25 to 30 years ago.”


The LibrarySchool merges learning, working, and innovating in a new kind of university program. Coursework moves into the library, where experiments are tested, and the library infiltrates the classroom, as colleagues join discussions and ideas are debated. Guest speakers from other disciplines bring alternative perspectives. “School” becomes an open learning network.

Students bring assorted cultural and professional backgrounds, focusing a powerful mix of qualities, experiences, and skills on the future of libraries. The inaugural class is made up of nine students, young librarians entering the profession with fresh energy mingling with dedicated librarians, midcareer, who say, “We want to learn more and reshuffle our brains,” according to Bruijnzeels. They come from public libraries small and large across the Netherlands and Belgium, where they continue to work in professional positions while they participate in the LibrarySchool program part-time.

All begin with a required one-year certificate that addresses core themes:

  • The library and culture, which examines the role of the public library as a cultural institution in an era of changing cultural values.
  • The library and technology, which looks at opportunities to add value to learning, knowledge, and libraries through new technologies.
  • The library and society, which explores the past, present, and future role of the library in a participatory society.
  • The library and organization, which focuses on management and operational aspects of dynamic environments.

Courses are taught in Dutch, by Open University professors, through a distance learning system. After completing the certificate program, students may continue for two more years and earn their choice of several master’s degrees, depending on their specializations. Student research interests have led to the possibility of adding a PhD program as well.

Every two months, students, faculty, and guest speakers come together in Amsterdam to discuss the future of libraries. The sessions create a “free space” that gives students an opportunity to share what they’re learning and enhances coursework with guest lectures, workshops, and discussions.

“We always ask the big ‘Why?’ questions,” says Bruijnzeels. “Why is this important? What do you want to do with it in your professional life?” Students and faculty learn from one another. Both learn from guest experts from arts and other cultural institutions who share their own experience of adapting to societal change.

The biggest challenge, says Bruijnzeels, is to transfer knowledge and inspiration back into the working libraries rather than letting them rest within the student or the school. To this end, each student takes on an innovation project that can be explored at the LibrarySchool and developed in his or her own library. By working with two or three “study buddies” at their libraries, students are able to share their thinking and learning in the workplace. Study buddies, like LibrarySchool alumni, are also welcome to participate in free-space activities.


The ultimate goal is to infuse today’s libraries with new ways of thinking. “We hope this library school will create real true core innovators for public libraries,” says Bert Mulder, curator of the LibrarySchool’s free space, in a recent appearance on the Dutch program This Week in Libraries. These are “people who are able to be change agents, people who are able to see long-term developments, and then take those and translate them into valid library solutions.” People who can help libraries create a culture of innovation. Sustainable innovation.

Bruijnzeels plans to enroll 15 students a year, and eventually to engage each of the 140 Dutch public libraries in some form of LibrarySchool activity. Within the next three years, he hopes to have a clear view of “the role of public libraries in this century based on what’s happening now, the impact that will have on the profile of the librarian, and what that means for the education of librarians.”

As the school models the qualities in aims to instill in its students—collaborative partnering, continuous learning and innovation, and active participation—that view will be a dynamic one. The learning will continue as libraries continue to evolve. “Once you are a student of the LibrarySchool,” says Bruijnzeels, “you are always a student of the LibrarySchool.”

Laurie L. Putnam is a California-based teacher, librarian, and communications consultant. She blogs at Next Libraries.



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