Episode 3: Miguel Figueroa and the Future of Libraries

FigueroaOn episode three of Beyond the Stacks, we hear from Miguel Figueroa, the director of the Center for the Future of Libraries at the American Library Association. Join us as we discuss Foresight Studies, fandom, collective impact, the Cone of Plausibility, and the influence of fast-casual dining on the future of libraries.

Length – 31:27

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Episode 4, on digital forensics and non-profits’ archives, will be released on December 1st!

See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.

Derek: Hello. You are listening to Beyond the Stacks: Innovative Careers in Library and Information Science. My name is Derek Murphy. Today I’ll be talking with Miguel Figueroa, the director of the Center for the Future of Libraries at the American Library Association. There he works to identify developing trends, promote innovative techniques, and build connections to help libraries address emerging issues. He has previously held positions at the American Theological Library Association, the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity and Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, New York University’s Langone Medical Center Ehrman Medical Library, and Neal-Schuman Publishers. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Knowledge River Program at the School of Information Resources & Library Science. Hi Miguel! 

Miguel: Hi there!

Derek: How are you doing today?

Miguel: Pretty good! It’s a nice summer day in Chicago, so not much could be better, I don’t think.

Derek: Ah, excellent! It’s pretty nice over here too.

Miguel: Good!

Derek: So, Miguel, could you tell us about your educational background, including your advanced degrees?

Miguel: Sure! So, based on conversations with a lot of my other librarian colleagues, I have that kind of very common English/History background. So, I double-majored at Arizona State University, English and then History, and I think I kind of did that with some vague interest in either teaching, or maybe going to law school. It felt like I was keeping my options open right up until senior year, and then I kind of had to decide what I was really going to do with my life. Other than the MLS, that’s the only advanced degree.

I’ve really been fortunate enough to be able to participate in a couple of other professional education opportunities. At NYU, they had a Diversity Leadership Program that I got to participate in. And more recently, as part of my work for the Center for the Future of Libraries, I participated in a certificate program from the University of Houston. They have a certificate in Foresight Studies, which is really interesting, I think. It kind of married well with some of my other interests, and was an interesting opportunity to go back to school and see what it would actually be like.

Derek: That’s fascinating. Foresight studies. Is that very interdisciplinary? Like, people go to Foresight Studies from various fields?

Miguel: Sure. So, I think in their Master’s program, yes, a lot of people come to it from different directions, whether they’re in the business world, some people in non-profit, some people who’ve just always known they’ve wanted to do this kind of strategic thinking consulting work. Actually, during the certificate program, I think there were probably 25-30 of us, and it was that mix. It was some independent consultants, it was some people from the government. It was people from business, from, like, Ford Motor Company and other places. So a really interesting mix. Foresight Studies is interesting in that it leverages any talents and skills you had before. They can kind of be channeled through Foresight Studies. It really teaches you a disciplinary approach to looking ahead into the future, no matter what sector you’re looking ahead from.

Derek: That’s fascinating. Are there particular strategies, techniques that you learned there, for looking into the future?

Miguel: So, they emphasize an approach that really looks at scanning trends and gathering information, and really being methodical and deliberate in looking across multiple sectors. So really trying to look deeply, not just in the field that you’re in, but also to look across activity that’s happening in different areas. So, the technology sector, things that are happening in the government, things that are happening in economics. And to really bring those ideas together and see your own work in that area. They also encourage things like scenario planning. So, trying to creatively construct, based on the trends that you’re seeing, likely scenarios, and then working through the ideas that might move you through those scenarios to make sure that you are successful if that particular thing comes to pass, or whatever it might be. So there’s a couple of different skills and strategies that you can use in there.

And then a big part of it was change management, which I think is something that affects all of us. It’s certainly something that we hear in almost any discipline that we’re going to take a look at, but in Foresight Studies it comes particularly important to know how people change, how you convey messages, how you encourage us to pursue new and different directions.

Derek: That’s very cool. So, why did you choose to get your Master’s in Library Science?

Miguel: Yeah. So, I was really, really lucky, when I was at Arizona State University, to find an excellent professor and mentor named Kathleen Sands. And she helped me enroll in several independent studies across the department. And then she finally had that one moment, where she just told me straight out that I would probably not be a very good teacher, probably wouldn’t do well in law school, or that she didn’t think law school was quite right for me. But, she observed me independently and said that what she thought I was really interested in was developing a research question, and that she noticed that I was really happy helping people identify information that they really needed. She saw that in the classroom, she saw that as I worked on papers with different students. So she noticed that. She encouraged me to go take a career aptitude test at ASU.

So I went to the Career Services Center and took one of those, you know, bubbled Scantron tests that’s a career aptitude test. And it come up Librarian. And it had actually come up in high school. When I took it at ASU I remembered it had actually come up librarian in high school as well. I always tell people to try and take those tests, because I think they reveal not just the single career that we should pursue, but they usually also unearth a couple of other career opportunities that help you better see your own life, and what you should be involved in. And so I took that and then I thought about it a little bit. I called some libraries. I called ASU’s academic library, I called the Phoenix Public Library. I think I got ahold of a school librarian and even a special librarian and talked with them about what they do. And it was true. I think it was the type of career that worked for me. It capitalized on my interest to talk to people. To learn from them. To help learn with them, which I think is really interesting. And then also to always ask questions and keep trying to put people’s ideas together.

And so, once I kind of figured that out and thought “this sounds like a real career to me,” and it resonated with my interests and what I actually like doing, I started to look at different library schools, and was fortunate that University of Arizona was pursuing a new recruitment initiative focused on library issues from Hispanic and Native American perspectives. So I pursued that, and was lucky enough to get accepted in the Knowledge River Program at University of Arizona’s School of Information Resources and Library Science, and went through that.

Derek: So, when you first started out in your studies, did you have a particular sector of the field that you were interested in?

Miguel: So, I think because I was interested in that sort of discovery and in trying to find information that hadn’t yet been published and formalized, I think I was most interested in archives originally. Because I thought it was an opportunity to find original and new content, and to bring it in to more formalized learning settings, and to make it accessible to a wider array of people than had access to it before. So originally it was archives. I thought that would be a really interesting opportunity to pursue. I was lucky that University of Arizona, their Special Collections had created an internship program. So I got to do archives through my grad studies, and do some of that. I think it interested me, except I kind of missed some of the social aspects of librarianship that I really wanted to… I wanted to be able to talk to people; I wanted to be able to help people with their most basic needs. Archives kind of didn’t give me as much of that opportunity. You could kind of become too focused on the collections. And so it kind of changed and morphed as I went through the program.

Derek: Mhm. And what did it morph into?

Miguel: Well, (laughs) I tell people I’m kind of the least successful librarian out there. I haven’t really worked in too many formal librarian settings. My first job out of library school was working for Neal Schuman Publishers, which is a publisher of Library and Information Science professional resources. So, I would try and develop books that would be helpful to librarians, that would advance their professional development. And then at NYU, working in the medical library was an interesting experience, because actually it was under a program administered by the National Library of Medicine. It was a regional medical library program where we worked with medical librarians, but also with public librarians and academic librarians. Even with members of the public, community based organizations, and other groups, to help them better utilize some of the great resources that the National Library of Medicine makes available. To really look at how information can help make healthier communities. I think that was a really interesting opportunity. So it was a lot more teaching and outreach and sort of community work than maybe work in a formalized academic library. And then I kind of found my way from that into an association role. Working in library associations, trying to look at how librarians can work together across institutions and across backgrounds to achieve different ends.

Derek: You’re kind of looking on a big picture point of view a lot of the time, it sounds like.

Miguel: Yeah. I mean, I often say I’m really fortunate to be part of the conversation and to have opportunities to make connections across that bigger conversation. I think that’s what I really enjoy the most.

Derek: Mhm. So, when you were at the University of Arizona, what were some of the coolest things you were able to work on during your studies there?

Miguel: One of the things that stands out most to me, and perhaps this is an indicator of why I’ve ended up doing what I’ve been doing… I certainly enjoyed the course work, enjoyed all the group projects and all of that. I really enjoyed my internship at the University of Arizona Special Collections. The thing that stands out to me about my library school education… Because we were part of that first cohort of the Knowledge River Program, we were exposed to a lot of different library leaders who would come through Tucson, whether they were part of an advisory committee, or they were there for a meeting; leaders from public libraries, academic libraries, leaders from the community that weren’t maybe affiliated with libraries but were interested in Hispanic issues or Native American issues. And so, we had a lot of opportunities just to talk with people. And to network with them and to learn from them. To kind of soak that in, and then translate it into our studies, or into our eventual practice. So that stands out as one of the coolest things that I was able to do during my studies. Was to take advantage of opportunities, to listen to people from their own perspectives, and from their own experiences, and to kind of translate that through my own studies and aspirations.

Derek: So, now at the Center for the Future of Libraries, I’m curious the sort of work that you do there.

Miguel: It’s interesting, as I was going through that Foresight Studies certificate, how closely it connected with some of my preparation for librarianship. At the center, what I’m trying to do right now is to scan across a lot of different news sources and literature and other information and to try and spot trends and commonalities to highlight how our society is moving. And so over the past year, I’ve been trying to assemble a resource that looks at trends from outside of our profession, and then I try and synthesize how the trend is developing, and then also explain why it might matter for libraries. So it’s kind of a big reference research project I guess. Trying to pull the sources that inform these trends, that illustrate how they’re working in our society, and then I kind of put on my librarian hat and think through all the things that I’ve been taught, and I’ve learned from my colleagues in the profession, and say “Okay. If I were to think through how this particular trend would affect us, what would I think about?” And so I kind of try to lay that out. For each resource, it’s a matter of bringing together the information resources, citing those sources, and really trying to layer together an analysis of trends across economics, demographics, societal changes, changes in education, different sectors, and try and become a little bit of a generalist that puts some stuff together.

Derek: Totally. I was very interested in this project of yours because I’m currently, in my position at Simmons College, working on writing for a blog about the future of Library and Information Science. As I was looking at the website for the Center for the Future of Libraries, I saw you’ve got a page with a lot of trends that may be influential on the field of Library and Information Science as it develops, and I saw that you and I were writing about a few of the same things! Gamification…

Miguel: Oh, that’s a good thing that we’re on the same page! (laughs)

Derek: Yeah! (laughs) I would say so, yeah! You’re not totally out in left field here.

Miguel: Good!

Derek: Robots, I also wrote about robots and so did you. The maker movement. So, I saw a few that took me by surprise that I had never thought of, but do seem relevant. For example, fast casual dining as a trend.

Miguel: Everybody looks at fast casual, and wonders what I’m thinking. But then, once you explain it, and once you think about it, you really do see how influential it is, not only potentially on our profession, but across what’s happening in our everyday experiences. It’s really transforming a lot of these public spaces. So it’s an interesting trend.

Derek: Totally. So, I’m wondering, you know, that one in particular stuck out, but there are others where you wouldn’t immediately think of it when you think of libraries. I don’t know, like, what kind of places do these ideas come from, the ones that not everyone is necessarily talking about?

Miguel: I think from having worked in associations, one of the things that I’m happiest about for this work is how many members, from the American Library Association, from other library associations, even our allies, you know, architects or other non-profits, have reached out and said “you really need to talk about X.” Whether it’s collective impact, or fast casual, or emerging adulthood was someone’s idea. And so, a lot of it is still collaborative. I try not to take credit for too much because so much of it has been given to me by really smart people who’ve chimed in and said “we’re noticing this.” So that’s a big part of it.

I think the other thing is that once you start this intentional effort to scan the environment, and to really look at sources that wouldn’t necessarily have library front-and-center on them, once you start looking at those and scanning, you start to notice how things pop up in lots of different places. You know, haptic technology was one of the more recent ones that we’ve added. It’s the integration of touch, tactile sensory feedback into technology. And as you look at different blogs and news sources, you start to see, oh, this term keeps coming up. So then you start to put things together and you’re like “Ok, I see that’s a major trend.” Some of them are apparent, I think some of them you have to dig a little bit deeper on and try and think about in different ways. They’re not as obvious.

One of the more recent ideas that’s starting to percolate to me is this idea of fandom. I think most of us see the news about Comic Con and other things, but what’s the deeper trend beneath that? It might be a move towards how social media and other communications are making it easier for fan collectives to get together, to talk about things, to organize, and create new information around their intense fandom for… Whether it’s a TV series, or a movie, or book, or comic book, or something like that. So that’s just something that you kind of have to dig a little bit deeper for and then find the words to articulate it.

Derek: Definitely. And I agree. I think fandom does actually have a lot to do with libraries. When I used to work in a youth section of a public library in Florida, I saw that the most popular young adult programs there intersected with fandom pretty closely. You know, and this is nothing too new, I mean, your standard Harry Potter program in a youth library is… I guess people don’t really think about it in terms of fandom, but that’s what it is.

Miguel: Yeah, and I think so many of the trends intersect with libraries, and it’s really easy for us to see the connections that have always been there. I think, you know, the high circulation of Sci-Fi/Fantasy or things like that… But to also try and look at, “Okay, how is this really a different trend?” And that may really challenge libraries. So, how can we integrate ourselves into some of the online communities, or some of the digital experiences that are happening around fandom? What might we be able to do to link that up with other objectives that we have?

I spent last week at a conference, Public Libraries and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Education, and that fandom idea kept coming up, because I kept thinking, you know, if we constructively used some of this fandom around sci-fi, could we engage people in real world thinking about: How would we construct some of these sci-fi universes using actual scientific principles, and could we help creatively construct our future by capitalizing on peoples’ fandom and pairing them with the hard sciences, creating something new and different?

Derek: Ah, that’s very interesting. Yeah, a lot of science fiction does kind of lay out potential pathways for the human race, and discussing how you could get there from here, that’s fascinating.

Miguel: And I was fortunate to spend… I was in Phoenix. I go to Phoenix in August to go visit my mom still. And I had an opportunity to go to Arizona State University, which has a new center called The Center for Science and the Imagination. And their mission is to bring together creatives and artists and writers, and pair them with scientists to try and do positive visions for the future, and to realize the constructive potential that we have as both creative people and also as scientific people.

Derek: That’s great. I do tend to feel like, lately at least, we’re not seeing so many utopias in science fiction. We’re seeing mostly dystopias.

Miguel: And that’s what the folks at the Center for Science and the Imagination were saying, is that one of the biggest challenges is to encourage people to think in positive ways instead of resorting to this dystopian view of things. And certainly, you know, the Center for the Future of Libraries, we believe that there is a positive future for libraries. We know that we can work with our communities to have a really beneficial effect, and we can build a constructive future together. But you have to engage the right type of people, thinking from lots of different perspectives in order to do that.

Derek: Definitely. Now, this may be a big ask. I know this is a long time span, but… What do you think librarianship might look like in twenty five years?

Miguel: Ah. So this is one of the things that we’re trying… not to do. (laughs) It’s really hard to kind of crystal ball it and say “oh, in twenty five years this could happen.” At the University of Houston, they tried to encourage us to, in that Foresight Studies Program, to think of this sort of “cone of plausibility” that might happen. So right now we’re in the present. We kind of imagine a cone going out from the present into the future. So we think, like, tomorrow is going to be kind of similar to today, and a week from now is going to be pretty similar to today, and then a month from now will be pretty similar. But the further out we get, the wider the range is. We approach that large portion of the cone, and so there’s lots of different futures that could happen. And so I think it’s hard to say what librarianship will look like in 25 years. I think different communities will likely find different things to emphasize within their libraries. And not only different communities meaning, you know, the difference between Chicago and New York or something, but also the difference between academic communities and city communities and even school communities might pursue sort of different things based on what’s of interest and need to them.

My hope is that in twenty five years we can have systems in place that will kind of unify the library experience, so that people can have a certain familiarity with what a library provides, whether it’s programming, or access to digital resources, or any of those types of things. There’s kind of a unifying system beyond libraries. And then there’s a very localized experience that you have within your specific library, that has significance and meaning to you, that resonates with the specific needs of the community. And that’s going to be kind of a tough thing to do, I think. We have to rely on the digital, and the idea that people are going to be accessing information from lots of different places, and in the digital world I don’t know that people are going to be as concerned with where things come from. If you look at something like the Digital Public Library of America, I think that it’s kind of the leading model, this idea that we should have a common access point to the nation’s rich heritage and collections. And then if you get really interested in one particular thing you can kind of dig a little deeper in to the offerings of a particular geographical area, or even a particular library and find out the material and content that they have. But that’s going to be a tough thing for us, to try and look and find other opportunities like what DPLA has created and capitalize on those.

Derek: Great! I think you did well with an… unreasonable question I just threw your way.

Miguel: (laughs) I think right now, one of the biggest things that I’m hoping for libraries is that as we identify these trends, we can maintain relevance with what our communities are experiencing right now. And if we maintain relevance with that, we will surely continue to be relevant as communities evolve and change. But it really is trying to look outside of our buildings and say “what are our users experiencing, and how can we adapt and stay current with that?”

Derek: Definitely. So, I’m curious: You’ve identified all these potential tends that may have a big impact on the field, and I’m really very interested to know, maybe, what trend or trends you think are the most likely to make the most difference to libraries.

Miguel: There are certain life experiences I cannot shake, and one of those experiences was working in retail. I often say that if I could, I would spend all of my time researching retail, hotel, and restaurants. I think that the changes that re happening in the service industries are really important for libraries to observe. So I do think that that fast casual idea… We have a lot to learn from that space. Their integration of technology into their spaces, their integration of personalization, and their blending of space as both a functional opportunity to do work, to eat food or whatever it may be, and also to casually hang out and to talk to people, to meet people and to socialize, that’s an important opportunity for us.

I think the other one that I think about a lot is collective impact as a model for change. The best experiences that I had in libraries were in outreach areas. So, I remember working at NYU and trying to reach out to different community based organizations that were focused on health. And the best way to do that I found was to really listen to the needs of that group, and find out what they were really trying to accomplish, and then to try and figure out what the library could do to support that work. I think collective impact is an interesting idea because so many of our big community issues, whether it’s violence, or hunger, or literacy and education, can’t be solved by any one organization. They’re only going to be solved by organizations and people coming together and really trying to understand the issue, and then trying to figure out how they can have an impact and contribute to it. And I think that that’s going to be really interesting for libraries: to listen to what their community wants to accomplish, and not to say that the library is the solution, but to know that the library has an obvious opportunity to be part of the solution, whether it’s through their collections, or maybe it’s through lending their space, or maybe it’s through the skills that library professionals have, that we can move the needle on lots of different issues if we really listen and understand the opportunity.

Derek: So, do you see groups from the community, like perhaps nonprofits, activist groups, even political groups initiating things and coming to the library, and then the library providing that support role, or do you see potentially libraries even spearheading these, kind of starting these initiatives on their own?

Miguel: I go back to the librarians that I admire the most were the ones who went out and sat in on meetings, listened to what different groups were saying, and then went back to the library and tried to figure out their opportunities to contribute to what that group wanted to accomplish. I think if we wait for groups to come to the library, some of them will, but there may also be groups that don’t come to the library, but could certainly benefit from our help. So it takes an active opportunity to go out and find groups that are trying to accomplish things, and work with them.

Derek: Yeah, that outreach is very important. Alright, so I’d like to take a bit of a step back from your current position and kind of look at your career overall. I’d like to hear about, what are some of the coolest experiences that your MLS enabled in your career as a whole, some of the very neat things you’ve been able to do?

Miguel: So, from my first post-MLS position at Neal Schuman Publishers, I think one of the coolest things that I was able to do as a librarian was to find people and ask them what they were doing in their work at the moment, what they were most proud of in their work, and to really listen and synthesize a lot of that. I think librarians are very good at bringing information together. We have to listen and take notes and think it through but once we have a couple of pieces of information we can put the pieces together pretty quickly. At Neal Schuman I was really fortunate that that was my job. I mean, I was literally charged with asking librarians “what are you working on right now that you think is awesome? Do you think that there’s a value in sharing that with the rest of the profession?”

When I was at NYU and honestly at ALA when I was in the Office for Diversity and even now I think that continues to be my interest. Both whether talking within libraries or outside of libraries, to ask people “what’s at the forefront of your mind? What are you thinking about?” is most pressing, and then try and connect them with other professionals, try and connect them with ideas that we’re working on through libraries. To do those types of things, I think that’s a really interesting opportunity.

I think the other thing, for one of the coolest things that I enjoy, is using our kind of generalist opportunity, the fact that we’re curious about lots of different things, the fact that we try and understand information from multiple perspectives, to just open up conversations with different people. In my current role at the Center for the Future of Libraries, I’ve had an opportunity to go to lots of different events that weren’t with librarians that were perhaps with technology people or design people, or other spaces, and ask them, “well, what are you working on right now? What’s interesting to you?” And usually we have enough knowledge and information to stay engaged in those conversations, or to connect them with other things that we know. And that’s a really cool opportunity, I think.

Derek: Yeah, I agree. Definitely. Well, that’s about everything that I had to ask about. Is there anything that you’d like to add to the conversation?

Miguel: I think I’m okay.

Derek: Alright, awesome. Well thanks so much for talking to me Miguel. It was great!

Miguel: Thank you.


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