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Contemplating the library of the future

Jason Broughton has secured his place as the ultimate librarian’s librarian. 

Broughton, 2014 master’s, was recently appointed as the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled of the Library of Congress after serving as the state librarian of Vermont for two years, the first African-American to hold that position. 

It’s a professional path he never expected to take after starting his career as a high school science teacher in Florida. 

But the teaching market was tight when Broughton moved back to South Carolina in 2008 to help care for his ailing mother. Instead, he found a position with a Lowcountry workforce center to write and implement a curriculum for job searching and resume writing. 

The late Charleston librarian Cynthia Hurd saw him host workshops at her branch and suggested that he should become a librarian. Broughton brushed it off, joking, “Is there any money in that?” 

The next day she handed him an ad for a job opening at the South Carolina State Library in Columbia to help the state’s libraries create workforce development programs. He joined the staff while attending classes to earn his master’s degree in library and information science from South Carolina with support from the American Library Association’s Spectrum scholarship. 

As the state librarian of Vermont, Broughton served 185 locally governed public libraries and supported the state legislature. At the Library of Congress, he will oversee national library networks and work to ensure they provide library services for the blind and print disabled, a diverse population that spans children through the elderly and includes military veterans. 

He spoke from Vermont about his new role and emerging trends in the field. 

Deep down, as I understood that I was receiving this honor [to serve in the Library of Congress], I have always been really focused on what is available to help people in this population. Technology is ever-changing, and it will be wonderful to see what is out there and what might be coming down the pike that I can connect outward. 

Having access to books will change a person’s quality of life — and that’s when things really open up. People have less stress and more freedom. Collection development will be critical. People want to read what everyone else is reading, not just what we’ve got in an accessible format. 

Two years ago, I participated in a conference with a futurist who talked about what was going on in the world regarding society, culture and technology. Toward the end, we had a project: design a library based on what you learned. The library that my counterparts and I designed, we actually created something that was heartbreaking to us. We designed a non-physical library. It was totally virtual for public libraries to consider resources in a different way. Then COVID hits, and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, look at that.’ 

COVID exposed quite a lot of shortcomings and allowed libraries to think about what they could do quickly and very rapidly. Libraries considered how they perform their current services and then how they could pivot to offer those services either virtually or curbside — as the closest way of being in person — or do them in a different way totally. 

So social media was used in a different way for story times. You began to see things that could be done in person move onto digital platforms that were accessible also. 

Efficiencies also started to be looked at. We’d say, ‘Wait a minute. What events and programs do we need to do in-person, and how can we use these virtual platforms in ways that are still successful?’ To me, there is going to need to be a balance when you are looking at socialization and society because doing everything through Zoom or Teams becomes tiring. But at the same time, it does allow for some interesting efficiencies. 

Now you can participate in an event 200 miles away without driving there. That’s a huge change where outreach is now more important. It’s a wonderful blessing for a lot of libraries to consider. They can now go beyond their community if they so choose. 

Libraries are watching a lot of information be generated, which people can create on their own through social media. Information is available in so many different formats and accessible in so many ways people can just pick what they want. And unfortunately, that means people can pick the wrong thing. 

It does not mean you can’t have your view. That’s the one thingI think that probably is upsetting to a lot of library professionals, that is, having information means having diverse, robust, rich amounts of information that is going to conflict. It never is going to be in agreement. But you take the information and make an honest assessment and learn how to question something. 

2.0 for digital literacy is going to be important. There are still a lot of people who don’t know how to use technology like you and I might. They don’t know how to type. They hand peck. But they know how to get onto the internet, they sort of know how to save files. They know how to jump on social media. 

What is more startling to me is that people don’t know how to search the internet very well. When you ask people to find things a certain way, you’d be surprised at how many people don’t know how to go to appropriate websites. They’re able
to pull up stuff, but they don’t know how to examine and go a little bit deeper and say, ‘Here is the most comprehensive or the most reputable site.’ 

Libraries are a part of culture, and we are integrated into what that culture is. Libraries have sometimes become a library of things. In Vermont, people are able to check out a Dutch oven, snowshoes, skies, playing cards, a volleyball ...  a whole host of things. 

Libraries are seeing information and touch points very differently. We now look at experience as a way of taking in information. Libraries are going to be looking at ways that they are integrated into the community and in some cases, they’re going to be the library of things. 

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.