New Model Library. Welcome home.

Imagine heading out for a well-earned, two-week vacation. To a place you love to visit and know well. When you get there? It’s all as you remembered. And you packed perfectly. As a frequent tourist, you know what you can buy if you need and what the hotel shop has and where you can go for a good …

Then, abruptly, you’re told—you can’t go home. You’re no longer a visitor. You are now a resident. This place where you were so comfortable and relaxed as a tourist? You have to live and work here now.

For many students, professors, teachers, and researchers forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to work at home full-time, all the time, that’s what has happened.

They went from being skilled digital visitors to unwilling digital residents.

Washed up on the shores of Zoom

My colleagues and I have been researching and writing on the topic of “Digital Visitors and Residents” for many years now. It’s a simple concept to define, but with many deep implications for how we approach library research, teaching, and scholarship. If you want a fun, quick introduction, I suggest you try out the interactive “mapping app” we put together.

At its most fundamental level, though, what we know is this: people approach some digital tools and spaces as visitors and others as residents. A student, for example, may use email almost exclusively for classwork and to get messages from faculty and only when absolutely necessary. For her, that is a “digital visitor” activity. Likewise, she may use YouTube for study, to upload videos for friends and family, and to watch entertainment and news. She’s very comfortable with it in all aspects of her life. So, for her, she is a “digital resident” of YouTube. Many of us are hybrids—in some situations we may be digital visitors while in other situations we are digital residents.

Just like tourists mix and mingle with the locals, digital visitors’ and residents’ online lives overlap all the time, of course. But—again, the similarity is striking—just like with real life tourists and locals. Passing through a lovely seaside town to go surfing for a week in July is very different from living there all winter.

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What we found during the COVID-19 crisis was that many, many people working in education and libraries and many of the communities they served were forced to switch, very quickly, from using digital tools as visitors to adopting them as residents. In some cases, these were tools and processes that some librarians had been pushing for years. But, to be honest, in some cases these tools and processes had been avoided.

“If we weren’t pushed, we would be doing smoke signals with the students.” ~ Head Librarian, community college, North America

And how many stories have we heard—funny, sad, frustrating, and sweet—about professors, students, library users, and staff—trying to make all this “new” technology work during the past few months? How many Zoom meeting horror (or comedy) stories have you heard?

These are the frustrations of a group of people trying to accommodate new digital lives using a set of tools they’d packed for a vacation. But now they have to live here. And where can they turn to understand the transition? Who can help them go from visitors to residents when it comes to understanding these important shifts?

Welcome to a New Model Library. A project that provides the OCLC Research team an opportunity to discuss with global library leaders the changes that were made in library practices and policies to accommodate their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. And where library leaders can also reflect on how a New Model Library could evolve beyond these changes.

We are guides, cartographers, and hosts

Librarians have been doing this for decades. Maybe forever, depending on how you look at it. When there are new “containers” for information, we’re there helping both visitors and residents figure out how to use them. For people in my generation, the library often was the first place where we used a copier, printer, or videotape player. For many others, it was—and sometimes still is—the only place where they could go to get access to a computer and, later, the internet.

We know that many students and users don’t care which “container” their content comes in. They often can’t recognize if a quote, fact, study, or paragraph came from a reputable article, database, primary source document, book, magazine, or out-of-date journal. They just want a citation they can use in their final paper, and they want it now. Library staff and educators have had to do as much work educating about the telltale signs of epitext and peritext as they do the technical tangles of log-ins and Boolean search parameters.

“Before that [the pandemic] library [was] just a building, now they know the contents of the library, what we have online in the library. Access to libraries has increased a great deal during [the] pandemic; students realize importance of [the] library. Hope that continues.” ~ University Librarian, research library, Asia Pacific

We know how to help evaluate the needs of individual digital novices, get them to the right tools and resources, provide good maps, and establish them as successful digital residents or visitors—whichever is appropriate for them—in their journeys.

What we haven’t done before is deal with a wave of forced resettlement on a scale like that of a world-changing geological event, massive drought, or … global pandemic.

A New Model Library

That’s what I and some of my colleagues are calling a library that is, first and foremost, an institution built for digital natives … and for those who have washed up on this shore, or who came as tourists and are now being asked to stay.

Whatever happens after COVID-19, we know that a large number of these new, “mandatory digital residents” will not be moving back. They might not be comfortable doing so much online at first. But their jobs, their schools, their universities will require it, and will provide more digital options.

They will want—and need—libraries that support them in this new land.

“I think that is the beauty of virtual—it is much easier to share. I think that will become more prevalent going forward.” ~ Chief Executive Officer, large metropolitan public library in North America

And for some of them, the library will be the only place where they will be fully, digitally “at home.” We already are seeing new cracks in the digital divide. Laptops, smartphones, and home Wi-Fi that may work fine for casual or entertainment purposes … that may work for one adult for checking email or minimal web surfing … will not be enough to support a full family of digital residents. These individuals may need to “live” at your library for a time.

Not literally, of course. Because we’re talking about “digital residents.” But we all knew children—maybe you were that child—who didn’t have access to books at home. And we say of them, lovingly, that they “lived at the library” when they were young. That will hold true for some of these new digital residents at a New Model Library. They will find their home with you as they learn to navigate a world where school, work, and life are more online than ever before.

This is, I believe, a wonderful opportunity for us.

“Getting embedded in the LMS [Learning Management System] makes it clear that the library isn’t just some place over there if that is in fact what some students still think—the library is all around us. It is here; it is wherever you need to be; it’s wherever you are. So, as long as they are online.” ~ University Librarian, four-year college library, North America

We can learn from many of the changes that were forced on us because of COVID-19. We can make transitions to longer term, positive transformations. The library leaders we’re in discussion with are sharing how they think a New Model Library might emerge. A report of these discussions and this vision will be available in 2021.

We already are very good at these things. We are good at sharing. We are good at learning. We are good at virtual and electronic. Now, we just have to be even better and more purposeful as we help these new residents find their place.

They only packed for a vacation. They weren’t prepared for this.

But we are.

You can find additional community engagement resources at